It seems a disservice to call Robin Williams an entertainer. He was a sprite, a gremlin, a genius. A magician who could draw laughter from his audience with just the twist of his wrist or the roll of his eyes. But were we his audience? Surely we were his friends. After all, in our hearts there was nothing but love for this amazing pixie.
So the afternoon that the cruelest of life events snuffed out this bright light – a brutal suicide – it seemed that something was gone from each of our hearts. Some future laughter we knew we could rely on, some gentle lightening of our burden would never come again.
The waves coming from the news media carried millions of words of instant analysis. Every detail was picked apart endlessly. How could our beloved funny man carry such intense pain that we overlooked? What happened in his last days to tip him over the edge?
His substance abuse in his early years had been revealed in a multitude of late night talk show appearances, most famously in a Diane Sawyer interview. In 2006, he revealed that after 20 years of sobriety, he had gradually slipped back into drinking until it had taken over his life. Wisely, he took himself to rehab to get cleaned up. But still, two months later, his mood during this interview was decidedly dark.
In his final year, he was apparently under pressure to make money to support his previous wives and his lifestyle. He was selling his beautiful Napa estate with the elegant home he had helped design and build. Was the sale of this home the loss of a dream for him, after his decades of relentlessly hard work? His new television show was abruptly canceled and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, all in the space of a few months.
Was his decision to turn himself over to mental health practitioners at this time the worst decision he ever made? In a comprehensive review of Robin’s situation, Dr. Gary Kohls reports that Robin had been given an unknown cocktail of medications that resulted in his sleeping as much as 20 hours a day in a darkened bedroom, isolated from his loved ones. In news reports after his death, it was reported that his wife last saw him late the evening of the night before and when she left the house at 10:30 am the next morning, she thought he was still asleep. If he was sleeping much of the day and night, then her thinking he was still asleep would be understandable.
In July 2014, the media carried the news that Robin had traveled to Hazelden, an organization primarily dedicated to addiction treatment, to “fine-tune his sobriety.” By one report, he was at a facility near Lindstrom, Minnesota. According to the Hazelden website, this would have placed him at the Center City facility. This facility features not only drug rehabilitation but also mental health care.
An enormous omitted fact in our understanding of the last weeks of Robin’s life was what happened during the few weeks he stayed at Hazelden. In the normal course of mental health treatment, drugs are prescribed to curtail troublesome symptoms. But paradoxically, these drugs are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Consider this portion of the warning that accompanies the drug Seroquel, a commonly prescribed antidepressant: “Patients of all ages starting treatment should be watched closely for worsening of depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, unusual changes in behavior, agitation, and irritability. Patients, families, and caregivers should pay close attention to any changes, especially sudden changes in mood, behaviors, thoughts, or feelings.”
Soon after returning to his San Francisco-area home, Robin was so tortured by his uncontrollable demons that he worked hard to destroy himself, first cutting himself on the wrist and then hanging himself with a belt.
Who was the practitioner who allowed him to return home far before he was ready? Why didn’t this practitioner provide sufficient warning for the family so they would not leave him alone for long hours? Did this doctor warn the family of the side effects of any drugs that were given and the possibility of suicide?
It’s not a matter of looking for a scapegoat for Robin’s death – it’s a small matter of repeated associations between these drugs and deaths – far too many to be ignored. From the website www.drugwatch.com/ssri/suicide: “In clinical trials and public use, there have been cases where antidepressant users have thought about, attempted or committed suicide…Medication-induced suicide has taken the life of both younger and older patients. Without proper warning of risks from doctors and manufacturers, people take antidepressants in hopes of curing their depression. The outcomes can be devastating. Antidepressants can help treat depression, but comes with high risks.”
The use of drugs, whether illicit or prescribed, always carries some risk. In some cases, the benefit far outweighs the risk, as in the case of penicillin for an infection that might otherwise become deadly. There are those who think a grand jury investigation of Robin Williams death is in order. When we lose one of the brightest stars in our sky to unproven, inadequate treatment methods and drugs that double one’s risk of suicide, it stops us in our tracks. But in fact, each life lost to these drugs should have stopped us in our tracks, if only they were treated equally by the media.
The death of Robin Williams should motivate us to inspect our methods of treating depression – not to send more people into the depression-treating machine, to possibly suffer the same fate.