Robin Williams’ Death: A Message About Depression

We were all shocked by the sudden loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams. Just today I had breakfast with an old friend from Marin County, California. She went to high school with Robin and would run into him often in her home town of Tiburon. People in that area knew him and his family. I even once attended a party with his mother. But whether you lived in the Bay Area or not, Robin Williams’ death too soon seemed personal, as he made us laugh for so many years. Last night, our family, during a reunion, re-watched “Good Morning Vietnam.” He was an incredible talent.

Robin Williams didn’t die of natural causes. He died by taking his own life. Deep depression, in some cases an ongoing illness and in other cases an onset of deep anguish, must have made him feel hopeless. There are times when many of you reading this, perhaps with a cancer diagnosis or because a loved one has been diagnosed, feel hopeless too. I remember, a few years ago, seeing a friend off in the distance sitting under a tree drinking from a bottle of scotch. I walked over. He said, “It’s hopeless, I’ve just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.” The man was bewildered and as low as one could go. He hadn’t told his family yet and didn’t know if he could. True, as it turned out he did not have a long life. But increasingly, that is changing for some, and it is a very variable road for any of us on our cancer journey. Some beat the odds, and in more and more cases – especially some blood cancers now – the odds are improving greatly.

But no matter what, the diagnosis can send you reeling and unfortunately, some people fall into deep depression or even take their own life. This is so sad because there are treatments, and there is help. I know in myself, I work hard to see the positive in each day. But if depression was part of my illness, I would need help doing that. If you feel like your health is failing in this regard, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. And if you are a “support partner” of someone with a serious diagnosis like cancer, don’t be ashamed to ask for mental health help for the person you care about.

At major cancer centers now there are typically oncology social workers. Ask to meet one at the center or in your town. In the U.S., there are social workers at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and at CancerCare in New York. Their services are usually free. And check out our recent interview about how a social worker can help.

Other organizations provide such services in other countries. Dealing with the diagnosis and medicines for cancer are tough. The goal is to cure us or, if that can’t be done, to allow us to live well for an extended time. Don’t let depression dampen that time. And please, please, if you have thoughts of shortening your time on your own, get help! The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK and the Crisis Text Line: are both important resources.

We are a community and need each of us to work together to get well individually and as a group.

The death of a celebrity draws tremendous attention to an issue. In Robin Williams’ case, it’s depression and suicide. These are real and so unfortunate. But if we confront this in our own lives and families maybe, in a strange way, Robin Williams will have given us one last gift.