Robin Williams, and thoughts on suicide

Midnight, in the graveyard at Bruton Parish Church in Virginia

This morning I awoke to the news that comedian Robin Williams had killed himself, at 63.  He’s the latest of a long line of creative people to take his own life.   Every time a performer or artist kills himself I ask if this is an unavoidable hazard of the arts, or if something might be done about it.

News sources say Williams was “wrestling with depression” when he did himself in.  I myself have wrestled with depression, as have many people around me.  The question of why some of us choose suicide, successfully and without warning, is one that has yet to be answered.

Most of the people who commit suicide don’t announce their intentions.  Some research suggests they may not even have such intentions until the fateful moment.  I don’t have any wisdom to offer in that regard; it’s perhaps one of those things where the only ones who know the answers are dead.

I know I’m a part of two communities at risk.  The suicide rate among people with autism is shockingly high – near 2%

Some researchers speculate that autism isolates us, and isolation is painful.  Autistic people are often subject to bullying, marginalization, and other painful things.  I can understand how some of us are overwhelmed by that mix.

It's easy to start feeling we have nothing to look forward too except more psychic pain, and if we feel that way suicide may seem like a good choice.  I do not feel that way right now, but I have been there before, and I can't think of anything that magically "snapped me out of it.  From my experience, I can see how this state of mind would become unsustainable after a certain period of time.  Yet it's a quiet despair, and I don't think most people noticed when I was feeling that way.

That's the danger of those kind of feelings - no one knows. We don't show much outward sign, and if we don't get better on our own . . .

When I was alone as a young adult I used to feel terrible pain and despair, almost every night.  I'm all too aware that those feelings can return any time, should something bad enough happen.  We're a vulnerable population in that respect.  Some people say sadness strengthens and shapes us; others say it kills us.  I guess it's situational.

Another study – this one dating from 1999 – found a similarly high rate among writers, sculptors, actors and other artists:

Are artists susceptible because we are sensitive to perceived criticism?  Are artists isolated by difference?  I don’t know.  I know many writers who are absolutely devastated by attacks on their work.  I’ve felt that myself, with some of the one-star reviews on Amazon.  Does that lead to suicide?  I don’t think anyone knows.

I know many writers and artists who seem to experience greater highs and lows than the average person.  Maybe the highs bring us our gifts, but the lows can take us out.  That's another unanswered question.

As a person who is often out there before the public, I know well the pressure to put on a happy face even when I'm crying inside.  That puts a tremendous strain on the psyche, and it sometimes hammers you hard when you're alone after the show.  When people look to you with certain expectations - whether you're a comedian like Robin, or a singer, or a speaker on disability - you are always feeling you must live up to an imaginary standard and it can be very hard.  At the same time, you offer your inner thoughts - even if couched as comedy - and it stings when they're rejected.  Is too much of that the straw that breaks the camel's back?  Those of us who are living may never learn that particular answer.

I don't feel sad today - I am not writing from a place of despair - but I am well familiar with how that feels.  It's heartbreaking to read stories like this one, and realize it could be any of us, tomorrow, with a few little disasters to put us over the edge.

The suicide rate for people with severe psychiatric disorders – mania, psychosis, schizophrenia, major depression – is even higher – near 10%.  The 1999 study draws that comparison.   I think of my parents, locked in the wards of the Northampton State Hospital 40 years ago. I remember seeing them among the other inmates and I understand.  They were a desert of lost people.

Is there anything we might do to reduce rates of suicide in these groups?  I wasn't personally acquainted with Robin Williams, but the news of his death reminds me how sad it is that we can be so silently alone and in pain - even when we are loved by millions as he was.  And our sadness can be such a crushing burden that we take our own lives rather than carry on, even as observers of our lives imagine things to be so good.  And it can happy to any of us - rich or poor, famous or unknown.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On.  He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program high school in Springfield, MA and Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA.


Unknown said…
I think that there are no clear answers as to what we could do to prevent future suicides but speaking about the subject openly and honestly is a start. Awareness is key and thank you for bringing a voice to the topic within the Autism community. Let's talk, brainstorm and provide support to those that need it and may not be able to ask for it.
Melissa said…
I read a comment by a fellow humorous writer on the website cracked that the most skilled comedians use their humour almost as a defence mechanism, creating a separate persona from themselves. That way, if they are rejected, it is the persona being rejected, not themselves. By creating a second "personality" that they show to the world and using it as a shield, it parallels what many people on the spectrum do by creating a different person who they think that people what them to be or expect from them. However, this is emotionally draining for the person themselves. I think it is this disconnect from the real person and the created identity in both groups that can cause or amplify the depression, low self esteem and self hatred. All in all, by trying to be what everyone expects, they burn out and succumb to the pressure. The energy of maintaining a happy, vibrant person would be enormous so really the situation of Robin Williams and anyone else in his situation breaks my heart.
Wage Slave said…
For autistic people, we need support and inclusion and not to be told that we are burdens, that our families would rather have children with cancer than children with autism, etc.

For people with mental illness, sometimes talk therapy works, sometimes talk therapy combined with medication works, sometimes medication works by itself, and sometimes nothing works. When nothing works, unless you have somebody with the person 24/7 to stop them from hurting themselves, there may be no way to prevent it.

For people who are funny, like Robin Williams, it might help if the people around them did not expect them to be "on" all the time, because that could give them the impression that people like the funny person but don't like anything else about them.
John Robison said…
Thanks for all of your thought on this sad situation
mindy.brinson said…
Many of us that are "different" have learned to hide our differences, and our weaknesses as they make us an easy target for bullies, critics and the like, so we are often the last people who will come forward for help when it is needed.

When we do come forward, the mental health system is so broken, that we often come out WORSE than when we went in, if the right care is even available or affordable to you in the first place!

And let's not forget that once you do come forward, you now are the bearer of your own version of the Scarlet Letter. You are prejudged, further isolated, and even feared! Society either condemns you, misunderstands you or ignores you. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say things like "He should just get over it" about a friend that has severe anxiety and frequent panic attacks! No one would DARE say that to someone with cancer or other physical disorder, would they?

No one should be surprised by the numbers; I am actually surprised they are not much higher. We CAN make things better, it just takes the will of the people to make mental health a priority. Maybe because he was so loved by so many, Robin's death might wake up the nation.

Thanks for your devotion to helping us be better understood by the 'Norms. More people need to do what you do and be a voice for all of us!
Unknown said…
I've heard of many people with psychiatric disorders not wanting to take their med's because they didn't like the way they felt when medicated, particularly med's for bipolar and schizophrenia. I wonder if this was an issue for Robin Williams? I don't know if he would have been able to do the brilliant comedy work that he did if his mind was muddled by medication. He also may have had concerns about taking medication because of his addiction issues. This is all speculation on my part, I don't know what his medication history was, but you'd think that it would be a priority to come up with medications that people wouldn't avoid taking because suffering the ravages of their psychosis is preferable to feeling the way they do when medicated.
Anonymous said…
I believe that so many of us who shoulder the brain activity of autism or other giftedness, talent, whatever you choose to call it, are suffering silently. Who understands us? How often do we find another who we can confide in? When do we not feel criticized or under the microscope for being different? Even myself, living with the choice every moment to attempt happiness and overcome anxiety and strife, I feel shrouded in a cloak that I must use to keep certain parts of myself hidden. Other times, when I brave being honest and share my ideas on positivity and love during times of heartbreak, I simply feel that I am being interpreted as fake.
It can be a no-win situation for those of us who struggle to find our tribe.
John, the day I met you and your family in NYC, was a day I felt comfortable for the first time in my life. I miss Mary every day. There were no veils and no masks. Just me being me.
Bless you, JER. This was a great piece highlighting an important concept for those of us who do have our dark moments of pain.
Thank you,
PJ said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Celestial2920 said…
Hi John.

Great article and I know what you mean about suffering depression. I had a severe crack up in 1984 after going to a 5 year high school reunion and have been suffering from depression and high anxiety ever since. Luckily, I have not tried anything destructive, mostly because I know I have friends and family who would kick my ass to Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri) if I tried anything like that.

When I heard about Robin, I got instanly depressed and oddly enough, I went into a screaming fir about the time his assitant found him. It was weird... I found out about it around 7:30 Pm MDT on my phone and told my girlfriend about it, who couldn't believe it.

I think Robin was manic depressive, espically after watching the show he did at the Met in NYC in 1986. It's terrible to see a man who made so many people laugh was going thru such soul crushing depression that forced him to end it all.

Rest easy Robin. Your jokes, movies and voice work will live forever.
We are doing it John. We are delighted to have you as a consultant. We reduce the isolation and build skills with "neurotypical" peers who care...

Unknown said…
There are ways to foster emotional and mental wellness--practices we can make a part of our everyday lives, and teach our children, and bring into our communities. Every little bit helps. I think it's important to stand up against bullying, ostracism, and negative judgments of those who are different. I think we should make a point of celebrating what's great about our differences. Why see only the downside when we can see the upside, too?
We need more stories about people who overcame adversity, including emotional and mental adversity. And we need less fear surrounding spirituality. Many have baggage about religion, and I have compassion for them, but I know many people who experienced tremendous wellness benefits from embracing spirituality.
There's also much we can do on the physical level to reduce the toxins that affect our brain chemistry, and support good brain chemistry through good food and supplements, exercise, sunlight, laughter, good social support, and time in nature (lots of research on that--you might be surprised) as well as embracing creativity.
Heathermsc said…
Thank you for your post. I am a mom to a 10 year old child with Autism. I can't explain why this sudden and unexpected death of an unusually talented individual has struck such a chord with people. As someone who works in the field of Special Education, we are looking at this "trend" of 'mental illness', particularly in my state of Virginia. I recently had the sad task of looking at 'exit' statistics for students aged 14-21 and the number of 'exits' due to death. I certainly hope we will be able to do more to get help to those who need it, especially for those that are both more vulnerable and at higher risk compared with the general population.
Unknown said…
In my readings when I discovered I had Aspergers I read that Robin was "one of us". Since that time (less than a year) I noticed in interviews he never made eye contact. Every minute opportunity was seized and turned into a joke. He was manic and seemed to be so uncomfortable in his own skin. I hope he is at peace now.
John Robison said…
Joanne, I had no idea there was talk of Robin and Asperger's
Unknown said…
Yes, I had also read he had Aspergers. This was a few years ago. I thought to myself that this is what fostered his genius talent along with some of the demons he must have lived with. This evening I broke down and cried again. I found myself asking him to "please come back!" Telling him he didnt deserve to be in such pain. From the time I learned years ago about when he had addiction problems I remember thinking how very misunderstood and misperceieved he was to some people; while at the same time others really marveled at his genius. What was different in this bout of depression that made him take how many ever extra pills he needed to die? The world may never know. The majority of us mourn him for the great contributions he gave us in television, on stage, and in film. Those who knew him best also mourn their husband, father, best friend, and confidant. Robins death brings causes most of us to reflect on our own lives and how none of us will be here forever. So, what is it we can do differently to not only honor this genius of a man, but also send a message of hope to those of is who can truly identify with how he must have been feeling? For me there are two main points we can carry with us. 1. Be more alert to those around you. Take notice of their mood swings and the stress they might be going through. Open ourhearts to be more receptive of people who might be trying to ask for help but arent quite sure how to do Iit. For those who do ask, dont answer with trite statements of how things will better tomorrow or that things cant be all that bad. Remember, what is depressing for you probably isnt what is depressing for me and vice-versa. If you are the depressed person, tell someone, and keep telling people until you feel you are being heard and understood. 2. Remember Robins infectious comedy, how we all joined together in laughter at his jokes, his acting, his hijinks. Remember his serious roles also. He was an excellent psychological character actor, which made each role he played so much more realistic. Honor him in those two ways, learn from him. Be kinder to your fellow man and those who surround you. Remember, it is we, the fans, who lift these geniuses up on pedestals instead of remembering they are as human as each of us is. May Robins legacy of how to live, not the tragedy of how to die, be what we carry with us as we mourn and heal from this loss.
Unknown said…
I think disbelief is the first thing that came in to my mind, along with the despair specifically the dreaded notion that he was taken from us, in such a way that has no justification and the shame of it. But then I did research with interviews he gave, he had been more emotional after his heart valve replacement surgery. And I know the pressure that recently came had him going to rehab, but not this time for relapse but, a tune up. Then there were times he joked about seriously not being there consciously during the alcohol spells. So because he was said to suffer from depression, I think it will come out, that he was on medication, which in combination might have taken away his feeling, which having that rollercoaster, of being real emotional and then having no access to those same feelings, for woman and children those kind of drops cause them to panic. But him having the memory and cognition issues, might mean that he endured episodes which he later could not remember.
Lydia said…
This will be less cohesive than I'd like it to be, but I have a few thoughts. First, I think, if we asked, we would find that people who attempt or commit suicide have a far wider range of emotional swings. We (yes--we, meaning, inclusive of myself) just FEEL things so strongly. Our worlds are intense, and our emotions are all-consuming. I think of that, together with the fact that autism makes it hard for me to understand emotion as temporally limited. When I was so sad I could hardly breathe, it was hard for me to see that I could ever possibly not be sad. That is a trait of depression, but autism compounds it. I always have a hard time waiting, for example, because of the same issue. Finally, I think many (most?) who attempt suicide do not do it out of selfishness or ignorance but out of self-LESS-ness... the thinking becomes distorted, and you see everything bad and negative and unwanted about yourself and none of the good. The result is that you are quite certain that the world and those you love would be better off without you. This is all the more true for people who are more chronically affected and are in and out of hospitals and watching their families struggle or all apart because of the mental illness.
Stephanie said…
I usually struggle with depression two or three times a year. It's been a long time since depressive thoughts have been anything more than a fleeting moment. But I remember when they weren't.

Based on my own experience, I think the power to change that isn't in the hands of society, but is in the hands of the individual. When I am depressed, I tend to be focused on myself. The depression encourages self-centered thinking. Part of how I get out of it is to think of others, to serve others, to live for others.

Suicide is a selfish answer to a painful problem or set of problems. The solution seems to me, in part, to make a commitment to live for others. The joy of service can, with time and commitment, wash away the life-sucking power of despair.
Unknown said…
As a 43 year old in the process of being diagnosed with ADD and mild Aspergers, I wish there was a place to be with others on the spectrum together. It is totally draining to be around people whose thought processes are so much different than ours.
kelly said…
I am on the spectrum. Honestly, I really do not have anything to look forward to except no job, no benefits, no family, isolation and failure. I do understand why the rate is as high as it is. Groups to help autistic individuals focus all of their efforts on children. Well, damn it, we grew up and we have very few resources to help us adults who are on the spectrum.
Anon said…
"Some researchers speculate that autism isolates us, and isolation is painful."

This is a gross understatement. Autism *IS* isolation. It is a wall built around you that you can never break down. You can see through the gaps sometimes, and see what kind of life you could have if you were normal. You can see people making friends, getting married, having kids, but even if you're surrounded by people, you can never break down that wall.

Isolation is not painful. Stubbing your toe is painful. Words cannot even describe the horror of having Autism. Of knowing that you are never going to have the things that normal people have.
I am 31 years old, and I have no friends, no job, and I have never had a girlfriend. I can function just barely enough to live on my own.

The only thing that I ever wanted was to be loved, but as long as I have this disease, that will never, ever, ever happen.

I have lived a lifetime of rejection, humiliation, physical and mental abuse, isolation, ad horrible, horrible suffering.

Due to the severe anxiety issues that go with this disease, I don't (yet) have the courage to commit suicide. But when I do, I will.

We shouldn't be trying to prevent people with Autism from committing suicide. We should be helping them. Noone should have to suffer like this.
Anonymous said…
To Anon on the 28th of September
Sometimes autism is isolation,but that can change. I attempted suicide a few times, before I knew that I have aspergers. I know how bad it can be, especially because we often are alone, and we often suffer from insomnia, so nights can seem to never end. But it can change. I am now married, to someone who is very supportive. I have two children. It's not always 'better', but people with autism can have families. The first step is to change your thinking patterns. The only thing that helped me to get past the stage I was in, where I wanted to die, which lasted almost a decade, was somebody who told me to stop thinking about why I was depressed, why I felt like I did, everything that was bad. Instead, I must make a plan for the future. Even something small. If you feel like you can't cope tonight, think instead about a walk you are going to take tomorrow.(If you like to walk) Plan it in detail. Then make sure you do it tomorrow. Make your plans slowly more detailed,until you can see a future. If you have family, try to stay with them until you start feeling more able to cope. Once you have a plan for the future, and you can work towards it, you will feel a bit more in control, and not so helpless. If you do find someone, make sure that he or she is a very patient and understanding person, who doesn't mind that you will sometimes need them close and other times need them to give you a lot of space.

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