Depression and Mental Illness: Lessons from Robin Williams’ Heartbreaking Death

130814-robin1Depression and mental illness are very real, and can have very dangerous consequences if not properly treated or left untreated.  I thought I would take a moment today to discuss these issues while the country — no, make that the world — mourns the apparent suicide yesterday of actor and comedian, Robin Williams, in Tiburon, California.

I will admit that I used to (wrongly) believe that depression, and mental illness as a whole, were a fiction invented by lazy, weak-minded people. Perhaps this was a byproduct of my upbringing in a strict Catholic, half-German, half military family. It was expected that “men were men,” things were black and white with no shades of gray (e.g. right is right and wrong is wrong) and people had to learn to “suck it up,” face their troubles and move forward.

Although this perspective is still held by many people today, nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, this target is gradually moving in the right direction.  Depression and other forms of mental illness affect millions of people around the world. You probably know someone right now who suffers from mental illness of some kind, although you may not be aware of it.  These are not all weak-minded people; many of them are quite strong.

It is a given that when our bodies are faced with sickness and illness, we don’t feel well and we don’t function well. But the same holds true when our minds are faced with sickness and illness.  We just don’t see it as easily.  And, because of the societal stigmas associated with mental illness, many people who suffer from it hide it behind closed doors.  As a result, we live in a country where suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and, on average, 105 people commit suicide every single day according to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

I work in family law, perhaps the most stressful area of law known to man. I routinely work with clients who are experiencing the worst times of their lives. Whether you are facing a broken marriage, child custody dispute, or division of money, retirement and assets, family law is extremely personal and can leave a life-long scar that may take many years to heal, if ever. I should know; I have regrettably been divorced two times, and still suffer from the scars of each marital break up. I’ve fought the custody and financial battles, and still struggle to remain relevant in my eldest son’s life. Additionally, I have also experienced a close family member’s struggle with depression and witnessed her accompanying battle with internal demons.

But this article is not about me.  It’s about the clients I see, on an almost daily basis, who struggle with the issues raised by their divorce or family law case. One client, who is also a good friend of mine now, was nearly paralyzed by stress for the first three months as his marriage was ending.  Other clients sit in my office and have complete breakdowns resulting from the stressors and legal problems that they face.

robin-williams-dead-obit-2As we learn more about Robin Williams’ death, details begin to surface.  Williams had previously been divorced twice and faced substantial financial difficulties afterwards, grappling with how to manage his money (or lack thereof) and to downsize his lifestyle.  He purportedly returned to doing a television show because he needed the paycheck, and it has been reported in the mainstream media today that the recent cancellation of that show put him into a tailspin.  Williams also had a very public history of battles with alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness.  People who know him have described him as having a very “dark side,” although he himself did everything possible to ensure that we, the public, always saw the side of him that was “on” — spontaneous, witty, crazy, creative or even manic.  Williams was not the only person fighting those battles or trying to hide them, but he’s definitely the most visible right now.

There are many resources available today to help people who are struggling with stress, pressure, depression, or other mental illness.  Sometimes it’s as simple as calling your doctor or a local therapist.  Whenever I speak with clients who appear to be struggling, I encourage and push them to meet with a counselor as soon as possible so they can begin the process of getting help, relief, medical treatment or just an outlet for venting (divorce lawyers are too expensive for venting!).  I generally even suggest this to clients who don’t outwardly or visibly show signs of needing help.  There is nothing wrong with asking for help, but there is plenty wrong and at risk with not asking for it.

I have been asked by several people to post a link on my site to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (, and I am happy to do so.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. By dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the call is routed to the nearest crisis center in their national network of more than 150 crisis centers. The Lifeline’s national network of local crisis centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals 24/7, day and night.

The world has lost an amazing talent, and his family has lost an amazing man, father and husband.  I hope that we can all learn from his heartbreaking death how dangerous depression and mental illness can be, and that in the aftermath of this tragedy we become more compassionate, supportive and encouraging to those who are suffering, and more aware of those who are suffering quietly.  If the publicity surrounding Williams’ death brings some light to those in need, and if we are able, somehow, to slow the pace of suicide among those with mental illnesses, then perhaps something good will have come out of something so terribly bad.

For more information about California family law and divorce issues, please contact attorney Gary D. Sparks at (925) 465-2500 or (707) 398-6008.  You may also contact us directly through our website by clicking on the “Contact Us” links and buttons to the right of this article.

Images courtesy of Reuters and Variety.