This week, the country is mourning the loss of Robin Williams, a truly inspirational actor and comedian who in so many ways brought laughter and self-reflection into our lives. While most people will remember his extraordinary wit, I’ve always been impressed by the thoughtful, caring, and sobering side of his creative works.

Through his intelligent humor and improvisation, Mr. Williams was able to stimulate serious discussions about controversial social issues. Part of his creative genius was his ability to make each of us confronts our own personal biases and prejudices in a non-threatening manner.

For me, Mr. Williams often elicited “Why am I laughing” questions. His humor did not denigrate other people in a hurtful manner, as can sometimes be the case in comedy; but rather his work often challenged us to scrutinize our own beliefs, life struggles, and insecurities. Perhaps more effective than many psychotherapeutic modalities, Mr. Williams was able through his characterizations to promote self-exploration and encourage us to consider other possibilities without our even knowing that this was taking place. And, he accomplished this for so many of us for only the price of a movie ticket or a cable subscription, which is considerably less expensive than psychotherapy.

Mr. Williams’ death elicits sadness and anger. I get the sadness! But why does his death from depression elicit anger? Maybe because:

  • Our society fails to recognize that depression is a serious, disabling, potentially life- threatening medical illness;
  • There is a public perception that depression is a personal weakness, rather than the 8th leading medical cause of death in the United States;
  • Only a minority of people suffering from major depression, including those with a past history of suicide attempts, are able to obtain and/or receive evidence-informed treatments;
  • Insurance providers fail to abide by the true intent of the federally mandated Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which, if appropriately enforced, would “really” provide improved access to mental health care;
  • Highly creative people have an increased prevalence of mood disorders (including, and perhaps, especially, Bipolar Disorder), and we as a society fail to provide appropriate mental health care;
  • There remains, even among health care providers, a stigmatization about mental illness as well as mental health providers themselves, which leads to a failure in seeking and providing satisfactory mental health care; and
  • There has been a decrease in research funding to study and to develop more effective treatments of medical mental illnesses.

In Robin Williams, we have lost a creative genius who was killed by a medical disorder, depression. If he had remained with us, he perhaps one day would again (Good Will Hunting) have been able to employ his creativity, humor, and intelligent wit to uncover and reduce our society’s widespread harmful and largely oblivious prejudice against those suffering from major depression, addictions, and other mental illnesses.

Thomas W. Uhde, M.D.
Professor and Chairman
Department of Psychiatry and Behavior Sciences
Medical University of South Carolina