Robin Williams has died

News media across the US (and likely other parts of the world) have reported that Robin Williams died on Monday.  The cause of death is a suspected suicide.

The star was found dead at his home in Tiburon, Calif. Monday, leaving Hollywood and the comedian’s many fans in a state of shock.

His death is a suspected suicide, officials in Marin County say, although the manner of death has not yet been revealed.

Williams, 63, was found unconscious and not breathing at approximately noon local time, and was pronounced dead shortly after.

Williams’ daughter, Zelda, 25, who is shown as a baby in the final post on the actor’s Instagram account, tweeted early Tuesday morning, “I love you. I miss you. I’ll try to keep looking up.”

His wife, Susan Schneider, also issued a brief statement on Monday: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Robin Williams was a highly successful comedian and actor.  He starred in a slew of Hollywood movies. The ones I’ll remember him most for were The Birdcage (1996), Insomnia (2002), Good Will Hunting (1997), Popeye (1980), and Hook (1991) (though he starred in many, many more movies).  He was also the star of tvs Mork & Mindy.

Williams battled a cocaine addiction through the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The death of his good friend John Belushi and the birth of his son convinced him to quit drugs and alcohol (though he suffered a relapse in 2003).

Celebrities, especially successful ones, are often held to a higher standard.  They’re seen as role models for children and how to be responsible.  When they act in a manner at odds with that image, people heavily criticize them, as if to say “you’re supposed to be better than this”.  People are often surprised to see celebrities dealing with alcohol or drug addiction, or to hear of them dealing with mental illnesses such as depression.  There should be no surprise.  There should be no higher standard.  Celebrities are just as human as everyone else. They aren’t better than anyone, nor are they worse than anyone else.  They have greater public exposure.  They have a public platform that many of us don’t have.  But that doesn’t make them better or worse.  It’s just a higher profile.

That higher profile does not make celebrities immune to mental illnesses.  They strike people from all walks of life.  Here are a few statistics on mental illnesses:

  • more than 14 million Americans struggle with major depression
  • 1 in 4 adults experiences a mental illness in a given year
  • roughly 20% of youths from 13-18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year
  • 70% of youth in juvenile justice system suffer from at least one mental illness
  • $193.2 billion-the amount it costs the US in lost earning each year from serious mental illnesses
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (above homicide)

Here are figures on substance abuse in the United States:

  • The average age of first experimentation with drugs is 13, and for alcohol it is even younger. Drug use has been classified as a major problem for kids as early as fourth grade by the students themselves.
  • Alcohol is the most widely used drug in America. It is the third largest cause of death in the United States, second only to heart disease and cancer. Alcohol and tobacco use are a significant “risk factor” in heart disease and cancer. It accounts for over 100,000 deaths per year in this country alone. It is also the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • Alcohol and other drugs contribute to over 50 percent of all suicides and over 50 percent of all violent crimes.
  • Over 60 percent of admissions to emergency rooms are either directly or indirectly due to drug or alcohol usage.
  • Over 50 percent of all traffic accidents involve the use of drugs or alcohol, with many of these being fatal.
  • It is estimated that drugs and alcohol are a factor in at least 80 percent of domestic violence incidents.
  • Alcohol and drug use contributes to 60 percent of all sub-standard job performance and at least 40 percent of all industrial accidents.
  • Alcohol and drug addiction are treatable. However, it is our most untreated disease in the United States. It is estimated that 35 out of 36 alcoholics never receive treatment of any kind. This number is increased significantly when drug addiction of all kinds is included.
  • More than 60 percent of college women who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, herpes or AIDS were intoxicated at the time of infection.
  • 28 percent of all college dropouts are alcohol users.
  • Between 1986 and 1996, Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) arrests were highest for 21-year-olds.
  • Individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 are involved in more than one-third of all alcohol related traffic accidents.
  • 95 percent of all college campus violence is alcohol related.
  • More than 40 percent of all college students with academic problems are alcohol users.

As these numbers attest, mental illness and drug addiction are serious problems faced by millions of Americans and the impact is staggering.  The number of affected Americans is likely even higher given that those coping with mental illnesses or drug addiction do not exist in a vacuum.  They have families and friends who are all affected to one degree or another.

The passing of Robin Williams affords the opportunity to reexamine our approach to the treatment of substance abuse and mental illnesses.  One area that needs significant work is public perception.  There is a tremendous stigma attached to people who have substance abuse problems or have a mental illness.  People are treated as less than worthy of love and care simply because they have abused cocaine or alcohol.   If you’ve abused heroin or LSD, many people see you as broken, or a complete fuck up.  The effects of depression are dismissed by people every day. Those who suffer from the Black Dog are told to get over it, or quit whining.  Those approaches do nothing to combat the problem of what people are going through, and do quite a bit to make things worse.  I hope that in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing, people will come to show greater care and compassion to those who suffer from substance abuse problems and mental illnesses.   If we could open our hearts and display less apathy and more compassion, who knows how many families could be spared the grief that comes with a loved ones’ suicide and who knows…? Maybe more good people would remain among the living.

Robin Williams has died