All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

When a Family Member Commits Suicide

Suicide removes one person's pain, but for survivors, pain lasts for years

I didn't know Robin Williams personally, but learning of his suicide opened an old wound.

In 1975, when I was 21 and my mother was 51, she took her life. She started her car in an enclosed garage and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the United States, nearly 40,000 people commit suicide each year. More than 90 percent of those who commit suicide suffer from a serious mental illness prior to their deaths. My mother had been diagnosed with manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. She'd been medicated, treated with electro-shock therapy, and hospitalized dozens of times. Knowing her diagnosis and watching her struggle with the demons of her mental illness for close to 10 years helped me cope with her death, enabling me to understand why she felt she had no alternative other than killing herself.

Like my mother, Robin Williams felt a desperate need to die. He hanged himself after having stabbed his left wrist with a pocketknife. Though he'd been vocal about his cocaine-induced hallucinations and his alcoholism, he never publicly said he'd been diagnosed or treated for a serious mental illness. In fact, he went out of his way to make us believe that he did not suffer from mental illness. In a 2006 National Public Radio interview with Terry Gross, Williams insisted he was not manic depressive. "I'm not that. Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah."

Many psychologists, however, have speculated that Williams had bipolar disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.7 million American adults suffer from bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by wide mood swings. A person with bipolar disorder may experience the highest of highs alternating with the lowest of lows. These manic and depressive episodes can last anywhere from a few hours to months.

Manic episodes are characterized by feelings of elation and high energy. People often have racing thoughts and are unable to sleep or even sit still. During a depressive episode, a person experiences extreme sadness. They often feel helpless or hopeless, unable to take pleasure from activities they had enjoyed.

In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer just before the 1989 release of "Dead Poets Society," Williams talked about his struggle to "claim some inner quiet, to calm all the business buzzing in my head."

"Yeah, I have to shut down, literally to that point of really turning it all down to basically white noise," he explained. "Sometimes, it's like a bad game of 'Pong' — the stuff bouncing around. And then when you find what's bouncing around, it's usually old stuff... It bothers me deeply. That's when you've got to clear it out, flush, and go on again."

According to his publicist, Robin Williams had been battling severe depression and had spent time in a rehabilitation facility last month.

Why was Williams so willing to talk about his substance abuse addictions but not his mental health?

Perhaps he, like many people with mental illness, feared its stigma. Perhaps he worried that he would be castigated and relegated to the sidelines.

Like many, my initial thoughts upon hearing of Williams' death were of the many engaging characters he played on television (Mork) and in movies (Mrs. Doubtfire, the psychologist in "Good Will Hunting," and the English teacher in "Dead Poets Society," to name just a few) and the synapse-snapping comic genius he was. An ad-libber whose train of thought went lightning-quick before derailing into sublime lunacy touched every element of the human spirit and made us laugh.

But then my thoughts turned to the family members Robin Williams left behind — his wife and his three children, who surely share her pain.

There are many ways for one person to leave another's life. Suicide may be the most painful way for those left behind.

I remember the day my mother killed herself. I was a senior in college, studying for my final exams. When my father knocked on my apartment door and told me of my mother's death, the pain seared. That day changed my life forever. For months, I walked around in a fog. For nearly 40 years, I've wished she could have envisioned an alternative to death.

Once the media hoopla dies down, Williams' wife and children, each of whom lost a piece of himself or herself, will be left alone to make sense of his death. But suicide is a scar that doesn't heal. It removes one person's pain, but for survivors, grief, guilt and utter sadness linger. Moreover, a number of studies have found that children exposed to parental suicide are themselves at increased risk of suicide and affective disorders.

Whether Williams suffered from bipolar disorder, major depression, or something else, his wife and children need to understand that the pain he suffered was so great he saw no alternative to death. Hopefully he is at peace. But now they have to figure out how to go on without him. I know it won't be easy.

Last week, his daughter, Zelda, paid tribute to her father on social media quoting "The Little Prince" and saying, "I love you. I miss you. I'll try to keep looking up."

My thoughts and best wishes are with his family.

 

This blog post was originally published as an op-ed piece in Chicago Tribune on August 15, 2014.

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D. is Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madnessis available at online bookstores.

more...

Subscribe to All in the Family

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?