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.





U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Strip Search of Arizona Middle School Girl

In an 8-1 vote, the United States Supreme Court today held that Arizona school officials who in 2003 strip-searched a 13-year-old girl while looking for prescription medications went too far and violated her Fourth Amendment privacy right that protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Acting on an unverified tip from another student, and without contacting the young girl’s parents, school officials in Safford, Arizona ordered 8th-grader Savana Redding to strip down to her undergarments, and then forced her to expose her breasts and pelvic areas to determine whether she was hiding any ibuprofen pills. No pills of any kind were found.

School officials defended their actions by arguing that the strip search was necessary for student safety, school order and to combat a growing drug problem. However, Redding had never been suspected of having illegal drugs, let alone drugs that posed a great danger to other students or to herself. Moreover, the officials could have confined Redding to the principal’s office until one of her parents arrived or even sent her directly home.

“Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution,” wrote Justice David Souter for the majority. Had the officials merely searched her backpack, locker or outside clothes, the search would likely have been found legal instead of having been found unconstitutional.

In another part of the ruling, Souter said the school officials themselves who ordered or carried out the search were entitled to immunity from liability because of uncertainty over whether the right had been clearly established at that time. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that privacy parameters had in fact been clearly determined at that time, and that the officials should be liable. Only justice Clarence Thomas disagreed that Redding’s rights had been violated.

Redding describes how she felt humiliated and violated by the explicit strip search. She said she was embarrassed, scared and on the verge of crying. As a parent myself, I was outraged when I first read about this story, and would never want my children here in California to ever have to suffer the same indignities as did Redding. I am grateful that the Court applied common sense to this case, understanding that our children are precious resources and that schools should not simply be Constitution-free zones because students are not adults. This is a win for the good guys.

More coverage is available in the NY Times and from Reuters.

For more information about California family law issues, please contactattorney Gary D. Sparks.

Are You Ready for Marriage?

Are you ready for marriage? Is it right for you? Do you know everything you need to know about your partner before you walk down the aisle with him or her?

As a California family law & divorce attorney, I frequently discover that the answer to these questions is a resounding, “NO.” Unfortunately, far too many couples don’t discover that this is the answer until sometime after the marriage begins to fail.

Of all places, publishes an online relationships column that asks the following questions of those who are considering tying the knot:

1) Why are you getting married?

2) Do you know and trust your partner’s personal history?

3) Did you plan your marriage, instead of just your wedding?

4) Are you investing more than you can afford to lose?

5) Have you identified and communicated your needs and expectations?

For those of you who chuckle because it comes from Oprah, I’d suggest you look at these questions and seriously consider them before you make the commitment to share your life, for better or for worse, with your significant other. Trust me, if you’re coming to me down the road, it most certainly was because your marriage was “for worse.”

For more information about California family law issues, please contactattorney Gary D. Sparks.