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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Robin Williams

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Once again a tragedy has mental illness in the news. Much has been written about the suicide of Robin Williams this week; print stories, television news, and social media have all covered the loss of an extraordinarily talented man. They’ve also talked about the facts about mental illness: the toxic mix of addiction and depression, the high rates of suicide among middle- and older-aged men, and managing mental illness as a long-term challenge.

In view of the challenges of managing multiple disorders—in this case addiction and depression—what makes the story of Robin Williams so remarkable is his many years of success as a comedic genius. This is like finding out that a world-class marathoner was battling congestive heart failure—an achievement that seems almost too much to believe. The character Williams played in Good Will Hunting, the therapist Sean, has a wonderful line when he talks about people’s imperfections: “That’s the good stuff,” he says. Surely, the “good stuff” in this story with such a tragic ending is the long history of successful struggle to be productive, generous, and authentic in spite of an illness that ultimately prevailed. Despite the energy and focus it often takes to cope with and manage mental illness, Robin Williams was able to bring joy and laughter to millions of people around the world.

We in the mental health community speak a lot about recovery, but the inconvenient truth is that for too many people, mental illness can be fatal. While shame or prejudice, lack of access, or poor quality of care can all contribute to fatal outcomes, even those who have been very public about their struggle and have had access to the best available care still, too often, die from depression. Of course, this is true of many forms of cancer and end stage heart disease as well. But our discussions of mental illness rarely focus on this inconvenient truth: these illnesses are currently just as fatal as the “big killers.” We must continue to invest in research to develop new and more effective treatments for people with depression and other mental illnesses. The goal must be a future in which no lives are lost as a result of suicide.