Robin Williams: Should Hollywood Do More to Help Stars in Dark Places?

Robin Williams Suicide and Depression in
Scott Bakal for Variety

Robin Williams battled drugs and depression for almost as long as he was famous. Although he maintained his sobriety for nearly 20 years, friends say he slipped into a dark place over the summer, following the cancellation of his CBS series “The Crazy Ones.” He checked into rehab in June, and on Aug. 11, at the age of 63, he hanged himself in his home in Tiburon, Calif. His wife, Susan Schneider, said that while Williams had stopped using drugs, he had been struggling with depression, and was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

Although those who worked with the actor found him upbeat and cheerful, his pal, author Harlan Ellison, said he had noticed a change: “The last few years have been gray and oppressive in many ways for him,” the writer noted. “I think Robin wanted out for some time.”

In the days following Williams’ death, many in the industry have been grappling with the idea of how a man who seemed so joyful on the surface could take his own life. Williams’ suicide — along with the relatively recent deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith, Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson from accidental drug overdoses — prompts the question: Should Hollywood do more to help its own when it comes to those struggling with demons?

Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia on “The Brady Bunch” and has struggled with depression and drug addiction, believes the industry should take more responsibility. “I think we can do more dealing with this issue, making the subject more talked about and known,” she said. “How many people have we lost?” But she acknowledged there isn’t a simple answer, and said her own battles weren’t a result of her career as a child actor. “I come from a family that has a ton of mental illness,” said McCormick, who started to feel the early signs of depression at age 12. “It’s something that’s in your DNA.”

TV writer-producer Neal Baer, a physician and showrunner who worked with Williams on the 200th episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” concurred that more must be done, but maintained that first there must be a shift in attitudes. “There’s so much shame involved in these disorders; we have to take that shame out of it,” he said. “I support the perspective that it’s not a weakness of character that’s controllable through force of will. Depression and addiction are diseases that require support and empathy, and not punishment.”

Certainly depression is a problem that’s not unique to the entertainment industry — 39,518 suicides were reported in the United States in 2011, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest risk population, according to experts, are white men between the ages of 45 to 64, a demographic to which Williams belonged. “Some of the warning signs for suicide are a sense of thwarted belongingness, a feeling of disconnection, and not having those supports that give life meaning,” said Bill Schmitz, president of the American Assn. of Suicidology. “It wouldn’t surprise me if people in the industry, because of their status and position, aren’t as connected to friends.”

Dale Atkins, a New York psychologist, added that another part of the problem is that many in Hollywood have become desensitized to the dangers of substance abuse.

“We glorify drug use and alcohol use in the movies,” Atkins said. “It’s so much a part of our media culture. You hear about people having drug problems who check into rehab and come out. It’s almost like it’s part of what people do.”

The nomadic lifestyle of the actor, who leapfrogs from job to job, as well as the inevitable upswings and downswings in even the most successful career, could also act as a trigger for depression, experts said. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson (who attempted suicide in 2007), Jon Hamm, Ashley Judd and Brooke Shields have all come forward to admit their own struggles with the condition. CBS newsman Mike Wallace hosted a 1998 TV documentary in which he revealed his personal battles.

“When you’re in the public eye, it can sometimes be harder to get treatment,” said Lyn Morris, vice president of clinical operations at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Culver City, who saw the number of calls to the center double the day after Williams’ death. She noted that actors might worry about coming forward, thinking, “ ‘The next director will not want to work with me.’ There’s a stigma about illness and depression.”

Williams certainly experienced up-and-down extremes over the course of his career. A gutsy comedian who rocketed to stardom with 1978 TV series “Mork & Mindy,” and headlined nearly 50 films including 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam,” 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society,” 1993’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” and 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won a supporting actor Oscar, Williams was long considered one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. He was someone as adept at drama as comedy.

But over the past decade and a half, his career began to wane, with such misses as “Bicentennial Man” and “Old Dogs” — a trend he acknowledged with self-deprecating jokes in press interviews.

Explaining why he wanted to return to TV, Williams told Parade magazine last year, “The movies are good, but a lot of times they don’t even have distribution.” While he never had to worry about getting job offers, he no longer starred in high-profile projects like ’90s hits “The Birdcage” or “Jumanji.” Of the four completed films he left behind at the time of his death, three are small independent pictures. The other, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” is big-budget, but Williams had only a small role, as Teddy Roosevelt.

“He had to keep working on projects that were unworthy of him, and were picked for him by people who saw him as a franchise that was constantly renewing,” Ellison said.

Williams didn’t make a secret of his battle with addiction, nor did he dwell on it. “He was not a person who had self-pity,” said Vincent Ward, who directed the actor in 1998’s “What Dreams May Come.” “He always struggled. That’s pretty much a given for so many comedians; their humor comes from a very dark place, and the only relief from how they feel is their sense of the absurd.”

The aspect of Williams’ persona that made him so successful — his hyperkinetic, improvisatory wit — also may have left him feeling isolated, said producer Doug Wick, who met Williams when the actor starred in 2006 family comedy “RV.” “When you worked with Robin, you realized it was a blessing and a curse to be operating on a higher frequency than the rest of the species,” Wick observed.  “It could be a very lonely thing.”

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  1. You people saying we should turn our back on the suffering rich people, they suffer from mental illness just as much as I do. Because in the end, Robin Williams lost hope no differently than a man with nothing loses hope and decided to end his life. It wasn’t the fact that he had all those things and people. It was the disease of depression that wraps you in such an isolation that you can’t reach out and you know that no one REALLY wants to hear it. I mean REALLY wants to hear it. People say call me if you want to talk but they don’t really mean it. Not really.

  2. Karen Charman says:

    I think Hollywood could do a lot more to help everyone in dark places. Hollywood touches every country and every language think how powerful there voice could be.

  3. Kenny says:

    Whitney Houston didn’t die of a drug overdose. She drowned. Apparently, heart disease and cocaine use were contributing factors, whatever that means.

  4. LOL says:

    Robin Williams ‘was addicted to tooth-rotting sentimentality,’ so says Barry Norman. ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/11041606/Robin-Williams-was-addicted-to-tooth-rotting-sentimentality-says-Barry-Norman.html)

    It’s always so refreshing when seasoned British film journalists tell it like it is. The British always give it straight, not dishonestly.

  5. My answer is no. The majority of actors.entertainers out there are able to get the help they need because they can afford it: insurance policies. Shrinks and counselors are available for everyone at any time. Not trying to be harsh about it, but people know when something is up with their bodies, and good family and friends usually can help a person out in the right direction. But, if you don’t know, you don’t know. If you, or a company don’t about a person’s mental illness, then its not your problem.

    • You don’t know. Try reading Death in Hollywoodland which tells of more than 500 Hollywood celebrities that died unnatural deaths because of their association with the movie industry. The damage to the human psyche resulting from the experience of rising to stardom and then being forgotten is terrible. Movie studios make billions in profit. They could afford to provide some kind of income insurance for actors but they don’t.

  6. Tamara says:

    I think Hollywood need to take this very seriously. And need to do something about it. Mental and addict problems are the worst you could have. Most of the stars aren’t able to deal with the fact that they are famous. They are in my eyes very gifted. But you need to councel them to get back to reality and out of the darkness from the start of your role in the first film to the end of a career. Then you can be different.

    • Williams financial problems stem from the fact that he’d been twice-divorced, and that cost him more than half of the fortune he earned. Beyond that, living on a $35 Million dollar ranch was a burden/choice that he purposely took.

      He didn’t need income assistance, he needed to live a more normal life, with better control of his money and his personal life. Clearly, he indulged himself too much, and found himself approaching bankruptcy.

      I feel sorry for the family he leaves behind, and that he lived a tortured life, but he also chose to live the life of a very wealthy person, with all the wives, homes and cars that come with it.

  7. jhs39 says:

    I guess Hollywood people are simply more important and valuable than the rest of us. Robin Williams was a millionaire many times over and had a network of family and friends–which is a whole lot more than most people who suffer from serious depression have. I know depression knows no borders when it comes to income and social status but I can’t have much sympathy for someone who could get the best treatment available, if he were so inclined. Most of us just change medications again and again in the hope life will become bearable and can’t get in-patient treatment because the high cost will lead to bankruptcy.

  8. Deidra says:

    Mental illness is a terrible thing, anyone could suffer from it. Most people don’t want others to know that they have a problem. I’m sure Robin Williams was upset when his TV show was cancelled, he wasn’t getting big parts in movies anymore and now he had Parkinson’s disease. He saw what the disease had done to Michael Fox, who also has the disease. He most likely did not want to live to have his speech affected and the tremors start.

    More has to be done to help everyone who needs help dealing with depression, their going to put nets under the Golden Gate Bridge at the cost of millions of dollar. I sympathize with the families that lost family members who jumped off the bridge, but how many people actually killed themselves jumping off that bridge. That money could be used to start more anti suicide programs to help so many more people. It seems like you only hear about it when it’s someone famous, what about the countless number of everyday people who take their lives.

    • Emma says:

      They no longer keep an official count, but estimates show around 2000 people, with 46 (and 118 prevented) in 2013 alone. It’s also the second most popular place to commit suicide.

  9. TONY says:

    Hollywood should stop treating them like God and they should stop getting high and getting drunk!
    Take some responsibility for your life and get help!

  10. aren’t they paid enough? aren’t they famous and loved by anonymous people? what else do they want? food stamps?

  11. Jacques Strappe says:

    It’s laudable to call for more to be done about mental health in this country but overcoming the stigma of it seems to be a near impossible task. It is somewhat surprising since so many Americans already take anti-depressants on a regular basis but apparently this is something most choose to hide out of shame or fear. Some people are especially good at hiding their depression like Mr. Williams’ always on and funny public persona which makes helping these people so challenging. While medicating for depression is widely popular and often very helpful, sometimes talk therapy and human to human interaction alone or in concert with medication, can be just as successful or even more so than pills alone. Whenever one of these awful events occur like Mr. Williams’ suicide or mass shootings, there is widespread call for improved mental health treatment and access in this country but interest typically wanes until the next tragedy..

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