The High-Functioning Alcoholic

Understanding this Hidden Class of Alcoholics from a Professional and Personal View

Robin William's Suicide and Connection with Dual Diagnosis

Finding meaning in tragedy

I have been deeply impacted emotionally by the news of Robin William’s suicide and have found myself shedding tears as I think about the pain that he must have been experiencing and if the outcome could have been different.  By nature, I try to find meaning when there is difficulty, and find inspiration from existential concepts—specifically the Viktor Frankl quote “suffering ceases to be suffering the moment that it finds meaning”. 

So what meaning can we make from this tragic death of Williams?  Newsweek.com reported that the actor had been suffering from anxiety, depression and recently was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s Disease http://www.forbes.com/sites/danmunro/2014/08/14/robin-williams-and-the-devastating-diagnosis-parkinsons/.  It appears that Williams had dual diagnosis—meeting diagnostic criteria for both a substance addiction (either active or absitnent) and a mental health diagnosis.  Dual diagnosis requires more than abstinence from drugs and alcohol, it requires addressing BOTH addiction and mental health symptoms.  If mental health issues are untreated, this can lead to addiction relapse and if addiction issues are neglected this can lead to an escalation in psychological symptoms—the worst case scenario being self-harm or suicide.  Life stressors can increase mental health symptoms for those with dual diagnosis even when they are sober from drugs and alcohol.  Therefore, ongoing care is recommended and can include: individual therapy, self-care (regular sleep, healthy nutrition, moderate exercise), social support (group therapy, support groups), spiritual pursuits and as needed medication management with an addiction specialist prescriber.  Which leads me to wonder if Williams had reached out for additional support for worsening mood symptoms since finding out about his medical diagnosis? 

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The part of me that is searching for answers regarding William’s suicide continues to ponder what he or others could have done differently?  When I move beyond my sadness about this story, I experience the dialectic of both the fragility of the human psyche and the continued strength needed for individuals to increase awareness about dual diagnosis symptoms and treatment. 

When we are afraid and we do not reach out for personal or professional support, power is given to our fear and darkness takes over.  I admire that Williams maintained his sobriety, however his silent suffering emphasizes the need for those who are recovering from an addiction to obtain necessary psychological and medical care.  Addiction and mental health diagnoses and treatment are “grey” areas and those who are close to and have been touched by the life of Robin Williams may never obtain the resolution that they may be seeking.   Instead, we can use his story as a reminder that despite fame, success and talent, we are fundamentally human and need to reach out for help when darkness sets in. 

For resources or information about high-functioning alcoholics, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com

Sarah Allen Benton, M.S., L.M.H.C., LPC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.

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