What can we learn from Robin Williams in life and in Healthcare

by Dr Nick

Like many people the death of Robin Williams

was sad on so many levels and while my connection with him was limited to the exposure I had through his canvas of work, I like others felt I knew him.

He was not only prolific in his work with a list of films, interviews and shows (and if you have NetFlix – here’s all the movies available there), but could often be found adding color and charisma in the most unusual places – in this story related by Christopher Reeve talking about his friendship as they walked past a lobster tank in a restaurant

One evening we went out to a local seafood restaurant, and as we passed by the lobster tank I casually wondered what they were all thinking in there. Whereupon Robin launched into a fifteen-minute routine: one lobster had escaped and was seen on the highway with his claw out holding a sign that said, ‘Maine.’ Another lobster from Brooklyn was saying, ‘C’mon, just take da rubber bands off,’ gearing up for a fight. A gay lobster wanted to redecorate the tank. People at nearby tables soon gave up any pretense of trying not to listen, and I had to massage my cheeks because my face hurt so much from laughing.”

Bet you wish you had been there to listen in!

The outpouring of grief, sadness and accolades was no surprise and while he may not be everyone’s favorite actor or character it is hard to imagine people feeling dislike for him.

He was a serious actor who’s work included playing characters with flaws
Good Will Hunting

Insomnia

And a personal Favorite (for the teacher we all wanted to have – Captain, My Captain)
The Dead Poet’s Society

But is best known for his comedic genius and unstoppable energy that could light up any room or interaction and turn even the most somber of moods into smiles and laughter

And his comedic view of what Lobsters were thinking in a tank as he demonstrated when he visited his longtime friend Christopher Reeve and making him smile for the first time after his accident

“As the day of the operation drew closer, it became more and more painful and frightening to contemplate,” wrote Reeve. “In spite of efforts to protect me from the truth, I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. I lay on my back, frozen, unable to avoid thinking the darkest thoughts. Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. He announced that he was my proctologist, and that he had to examine me immediately. My first reaction was that either I was on way too many drugs or I was in fact brain damaged. But it was Robin Williams. He and his wife, Marsha, had materialized from who knows where. And for the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

The friend we all want to have…?

With that in mind it can be hard to reconcile that character with someone who would take his own life:

  • How is it possible that someone with what appeared to be so much joy and happiness who was surrounded by friends and family find themselves in such a state of despair to take an irreversible path and commit suicide?
  • How is it possible that someone who outwardly seemed to have such a sharp insight into people and laughter who could make us all laugh at the most unlikely of issues or discussions could take his own life?
  • How is it possible that someone with such a storied and successful career could drop into a state of depression with so much to live for and so many people who loved him and end his own life?
  • How is it possible that a smart, intelligent and gifted individual with so many positive aspects to his life could see no alternative to ending his life and commit suicide?

We can be surrounded by people but be all alone

In what seems eerily insightful he talked about this in his “report to Orson” in the show Mork and Mindy in 1981 where Mork meets a famous celebrity (in this case it the famous celebrity is Robin Williams): “Mork Meets Robin Williams”. You can watch part of it here
Mork learns about the nature of fame on Earth and the toll it takes on those who get swept up in it, or try this link

There has been some mention of Parkinson’s Disease and this may have had a contributing role. But the underlying challenge was his battle with depression. On many occasions he had shared his struggle with depression and substance abuse and the ongoing challenge he personally faced dealing with his disease.

The word depression is used frequently by people to describe their feelings and emotions but it has a very specific meaning in medicine and is used to describe a mood disorder:

Clinical depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration interfere with everyday life for a longer period of time.

Not to be confused with sadness which is a temporary feeling that is normally associated with some negative aspect of our lives or surroundings and passes

Our understanding of depression is still limited – our treatment of this disease is still in its infancy and mostly limited to broad-brush therapies that impact neurotransmitters that are implicated but not exclusively associated with depression. We have (mostly) moved past separating and isolating people from the general population (although some would argue that our prison system is the new version of the sanatorium). But our ability to treat or cure depression remains stubbornly missing.

Our understanding of the brain is limited and despite laudable attempts to jumpstart the process
The NIH BRAIN Initiative progress however remains frustratingly slow and leaves our society with a subset of the population suffering from varying degrees of debilitating diseases of our brain including depression, mania and schizophrenia and many others.

So what did Robin Williams teach us in Life

Laughter is the best medicine

It is hard to pick a single moment from his incredible repertoire, so I picked 3:
Mrs Doubtfire
Explaining Golf
 Or this medley tour of cultures and accents all done in less than 2 minutes
Laugh and laugh loudly

Being different is not just OK its what makes life worth living

Endless compassion

and the real Patch Adams

What did Robin Williams Teach us in Death

We need empathy, compassion and tolerance in our society
Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care

Social Media can help link people but even with these digital connections humans may still feel disconnected and alone despite outward appearances to the contrary and connecting, engaging and reaching out is even more important today in our “connected” world

Suicide is painful – not only for the unnecessary loss of life but for the trail of despair it leaves behind for all the people wondering
what if….
should have….
could have done….

I’ve experienced it with friends and still think about them. In fact I was reminded when I read about two more suicides in New York: Suicides At NYU And New York Presbyterian–2 Physician Interns Jumped To Their Deaths of two promising lives brought to a final and sad end.

Don’t let that be your legacy and reach out to someone today and remind them and yourself why life is great for both of you


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