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What Robin Williams Can Teach Us About Understanding Illness

If you’ve turned on the TV, opened up a newspaper, or navigated to any social media website in the last 24 hours, you know Robin Williams tragically passed away yesterday from an apparent suicide.

I’m a psychiatrist, but feel that I can’t comment more on his story because I don’t know it. I didn’t know he was struggling with depression or suicidal thinking, and even if I had read every article published in the last day I wouldn’t truly understand how he experienced depression, what happened in his life to drive him to suicide, or if there was any way it could have been prevented.

But as I was reading through some social media sites this morning, I saw many posts from people speculating on his life and illness. Some people have never experienced depression and are not mental health professionals, but figure they’re free to judge his life or say what he did or didn’t need.

Others have been depressed, but assume their experience with this illness is the same as anyone else’s, and therefore presume without knowing anything about him to say things like, “He just needed this medication, it saved my life,” or “Medications probably killed him, or “Therapy was the only thing that helped me — if only he had gotten therapy he might have made it,” or even “I was able to pull myself up by the bootstraps, so his suicide demonstrated a character defect.”

Then there is the group of people, perhaps the most guilty because we should know better—the mental health professionals. Suddenly, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our knowledge. Some of us position ourselves to be interviewed as experts in newspapers, or make lofty, presumptive comments on social media sites. The article always reads, “Doctor so and so—who did not examine the patient—commented that… (insert generic comment about depression here).

If there is one thing I’ve learned from being being diagnosed with cancer, it’s that each of our stories of illness is unique. While cancer patients may share a kinship in certain ways, my cancer is not your cancer, and I could not assume I knew the right path for another person suffering from this disease.

It’s especially important for mental health professionals to practice humility and keep an open mind in their work. Yes, I am an expert in psychiatry, but my patients are experts in their bodies and minds. If a patient tells me they have a certain experience, who am I to tell them they’re wrong? My job is to collaborate with them on their path to healing—not to tell them what to do.

When a person experiences the ultimate tragic end to any illness, let it be a lesson as to how little we know rather than how much.

How can we advance the field of psychiatry, for example, to better prevent suicide? How can we learn to be more observant and open so that if people in our lives are suffering, we notice and take action? How do we, when the worst tragedies occur, find strength within ourselves to offer compassion and lovingkindness to the people affected?


  1. John Hoedack says:

    Well said.

  2. Janice Liu says:

    Well said!

  3. Barbara Dobree says:

    Agree, as I’ve experienced both depression and cancer!

  4. Siddartha Tekuru says:

    Great insight. You have been an inspiration. I wish I could meet you someday after I get my MD in psychiatry.

  5. Diana Hird says:


  6. Amen. And count me among those who have had depression and cancer.

  7. Agreed. Thanks for the refreshing perspective!

  8. Take out judgement and assumptions. Seems simple but hard for so many people to do.

    Thank you

  9. Thank you so much for this. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and have never commented until today. I have suffered from depression since I was 16 (I’m now 30) and I’ve learned in that time that no one’s experience is the same. It’s so frustrating hearing people speculate what might have caused him to take his life or, worse, judge him for being in such deep pain. What’s more astonishing is that often these people are “mental health professionals” who seem to care more about getting on television than the implications of their hurtful comments. Thank you for this, I really appreciate your point of view.

  10. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I have clinical depression and have always been amazed by how judgmental people can be. Each of us are affected differently, there is no textbook response to depression. Robin’s death has hit me hard; I had always empathized with his memories of a lonely childhood because I had one as well and had been aware of his struggles with depression. It is scary to see any one lose their battle with it, especially when you are familiar with the lure of falling into the abyss.

  11. Judy Kasey Houlette says:

    Thank you. So true, and beautifully expressed.

  12. Thank you for posting this and for keeping it real. I am awed by how humble you are. I haven’t read anything written by a medical professional that shows humility as much as your post did. Usually, when physicians speak, even on unfounded ideas, they do it with a sense of authority and utmost certainty. So it is very refreshing to know that we can still keep it real. I believe that by keeping things real, we would be more capable of understanding depression. Let me share with you and all the readers of this blog, a new psychology blog, it is http://www.saskedpsych.ca. It has a lot of informative articles about health, science and philosophy as well.
    I mourn the passing of Robin Williams. Like most people, I adore his movies and his talent.

  13. echofoxtrot says:

    Another aspect of Robin Williams’ suicide has been suppressed by the filter of “political correctness”…..alimony payments to two ex-wives, payments that Williams himself called “all the money”……$34,000,000, from what I have read. At a time when most 63-year-olds think of retirement, Williams could only keep working to feed the beast of vindictive ex-wives and a complicit Family Court system. Stefan Molyneux has a presentation uploaded to Youtube that provides an hour-long description of this issue.


    As members of the psychiatric profession, please keep in mind that men commit suicide four times more often than women do. Dr. Augustine Kposowa of U.C. Riverside has also found that the post-divorce suicide rate for men doubles, while for women, it remains unchanged.

  14. I heard at least a few people say that he was short for money because he had to pay alimony for divorces and such, and that’s how he got depressed. Really, like you said, how are we entitled to understand what Robin really went through, and to judge his situation so easily? I find it so hard to react in a ‘rational’ way if I’m going through many thing remotely challenging… So I can’t even imagine what was going through Robins head. But to immediately recognize that we know so little, and to keep our minds and hearts open to listening to others, I think is a good first step.

  15. You have beautifully expressed my own views on the subject, being myself a psychiatrist affected with metastatic cancer. Individualised care is what we must struggle for as doctors as well as patients.

  16. I lost a 27 year old very close friend to either an accidental or deliberate suicide one month ago. The family will not say.

    It was shocking and personally crushing.

    I have a lot to learn.

  17. thanks for this. i’m still processing Williams’ passing and suspect i will be for a while longer, so no further comment at this time.

    as an aside, though, and because i haven’t delved into your archive yet, do you have much of a take on Sam Harris’ work? i know that neuroscience (his second degree, following philosophy) and psychiatry are only tenuously related, but i recall him “smuggling Buddhism” into talks at atheist conferences (as well as published remarks excepting it out from under the generally erroneous umbrella of ‘religion’) and wonder if you have considered your paths parallel or similar in any way.


  1. […] my dear friends (and former guest on the Inspiration With Val podcast), Dr. Elana Miller wrote a great piece about it from her perspective as a psychiatrist.    I also love this article about why Millennials seem to be particularly affected by his death. […]

  2. […] my dear friends (and former guest on the Inspiration With Val podcast), Dr. Elana Miller wrote a great piece about it from her perspective as a psychiatrist.    I also love this article about why Millennials seem to be particularly affected by his death. […]

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