Robin Williams' Death Spotlights Mental Health Stigma

Image: Robin Williams' Death Spotlights Mental Health Stigma (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 11:32 AM

By Charlotte Libov

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Mental health experts are hoping that the apparent suicide of actor-comedian Robin Williams will turn a national spotlight on depression, and help others find treatment for this devastating disease, a top therapist says.
 
“Robin Williams was such a beloved figure. I hope that now people will finally realize that the mental illness he had is a brain disease, which should be treated like heart disease, cancer, or any other illness, and should not be stigmatized,” says nationally known psychotherapist Fran Sherman.
 
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Williams was found dead Monday of an apparent suicide. He had long been public about his struggles with drugs and alcohol. After his death, his publicist declared he suffered from “severe depression.” For years, Williams was presumed to be suffering from bipolar disorder, which affects approximately 5.7 million Americans. It is a debilitating disease that brings about severe highs and lows in mood changes.
 
“This is a brain disease. It’s a brain illness and we need to destigmatize the shame that people feel. The chemicals in the brains of people with bipolar disorder just fire in different way than people who don’t suffer from it,” Sherman tells Newsmax Health.
 
“Robin Williams was beloved. There is not a person who had not been touched by him. People of all different ages loved him. Everything he did was so powerful and real. He made you laugh, he made you cry, and because of the depth of his genius, and his illness, he was able to go places that ordinary people couldn’t go,” she said.
 
The fact that Williams had battled an addiction to cocaine does not surprise Sherman.
 
“I don’t think I have ever treated a bipolar patient [who] didn’t use drugs at some point,” she says. “Bipolar disorder is hard to treat because patients tend to go off their medication. Being high feels good, and so when you are taking medication for it, you lose that feeling. So people start to self-medicate with [recreational] drugs, and that’s why there is so much drug use associated with depression and bipolar disorder.”
 
In Williams’ case, overcoming bipolar disorder was even more difficult because the actor was publicly acclaimed for his roles that seesawed between highs and lows.
 
“Robin Williams was a true genius. People loved the manic side of him, and it was what made him. But when he took on serious roles, the depth of his sadness was real,” she says of the Academy Award-winning actor.
 
She is also hoping the tragedy will turn the focus on the disparity of care between people who have an illness like a brain tumor or stroke, and those who are mentally ill.  
 
“People like Robin Williams or Catherine Zeta Jones can always say they are going to rehab. They can afford long-term treatment but the general public doesn’t have that ability. Insurance won’t cover such hospitalization unless you abuse drugs,” she says. “Mental illness is not treated like a real illness, and that is the part that is insane.”
 
She also hopes that Williams’ death passing will help explode some of the entrenched myths about mental illness. “People say someone like Robin Williams had everything, but he also had a terrible disease,” she notes.
 
Here are warning signs of depression that may put someone at increased risk of suicide, provided by from Sherman and the Bipolar Support Alliance:
  • Disengagement from life, not wanting to visit or call friends
  • Expressing extreme feelings of hopelessness, despair and self-doubt. The more often such feelings are described as “unbearable,” the more likely it is the idea of suicide may be entering the person’s mind.
  • Taking care of personal affairs, taking steps to insure the family’s welfare.
  • Writing goodbye letters.
  • Bouts of crying.
  • Rehearsing suicide, or seriously discussing suicidal methods.
  • Engaging in drug or alcohol abuse.
  • An unusually upbeat outlook. Although it sounds strange, someone dealing with depression might be most likely to attempt suicide when he or she seems to have passed an episode’s low point and appears to be on the way to recovery. 
If you observe such warning signs in a close friend or loved one, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
 
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