On the screen and stage, Robin Williams was a frenetic blur of joyful energy and wit. But behind the smile lurked something we don’t associate with celebrities: depression.Over and over, the sentiment expressed by fellow actors and fans following Williams’ suicide Monday was the disbelief that someone so full of life could end his own.
We tend to think famous people are immune to mundane problems such as depression and substance abuse, which Williams also struggled with. They have money, power and adoring fans — what's there to be sad about? But it’s not that simple, says Mandy Eppley, a professional counselor.
“Influence through affluence does not change the biological components of depression, nor does it change the emotional and spiritual aspects of depression,” she says. “We have a superficial view: ‘If you have good things, you shouldn’t be struggling.’ That is not the nature of the human journey.”
In the case of mental illness, the trappings of fame can be just that, according to psychotherapist Dr. Jennifer Kunst. Creative people are especially vulnerable, even more so when fame finds them early. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took his own life at 27, and child stars often make the news for their public struggles as their careers flag.
“As artists, they tend to be extremely sensitive by nature,” Kunst says. “Such individuals can develop a perfectionistic relationship with their craft, feeling harshly critical of themselves even when they are succeeding.”
Relying on the feedback of others to assess self-worth is a precarious position for anyone, Kunst says. Bad news — a negative review, financial trouble or the winding down of a career — “can lead to tremendous anxiety. They may live under a constant worry that they could lose their success at any minute — and, with it, their sense of personal value,” she says.
Williams had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, often referencing it in his comedy. ("I went to rehab in wine country, just to keep my options open," he told the Television Critics Association in 2013.) And though he was sober for two decades, he relapsed in 2006 and sought treatment, then checked himself into rehab again just last month.
“We are a culture that glamorizes pleasure and avoidance of the difficulties of life,” Eppley says. At the extreme, celebrity status can mean celebrating without any moderation. “[Drugs and alcohol are] an easy way for people to cope initially. I think for some people, the addiction just sneaks up on them because they were just having fun with their friends.”
Kunst adds: “Addiction is a chronic, lifelong disease with an up-and-down course that wears both on an individual psyche as well as his or her support system. Relapse is common and is stressful and discouraging.”
Despite struggling with these common problems, because celebrities are under constant watch by tabloids they're not given the chance to be regular human beings.
“There’s [a lot of] pressure to keep up a false front and little room for celebrities to feel that they can be regular people ... admitting their failures, learning through trial and error and seeking help when they need it,” she says.
Suicide in America
Robin Williams actually typifies suicide, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control data from 2011:
• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
•One person takes his or her life every 13.3 minutes
• The highest rate is among white people, aged 45-64, who live in the West.
• Men are over four times more likely to kill themselves.
If you or someone you know is struggling, get help. You canchat online with a trained volunteer at www.IMAlive.org, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.