When a culture believes something deeply (called a cultural meme) nothing can dislodge it. Thus, examining Robin Williams' suicide, media commentator after commentator derives from it the need to seek treatment for depression and to enter recovery, both of which Williams did. The logic seems to be, "Although he died following that prescription, it would have been worse if he didn't!"
Treatment. According to recent articles in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Robin Williams was thoroughly enmeshed in treatment. According to the NY Times, Williams "had recently been treated for severe depression." He seemingly had been treated for depression for many years. According to the LA Times, "Last month, it went public that Williams was taking part in Hazelden's Lodge 'experience' in Minnesota. The facility bills the program as a place where people who are living sober can come to touch their 12-step bases."
So, mental health and media commentators deduce without hesitation from Williams' case that, if you are depressed, or have substance issues, you should go to treatment. How does that work? I'm missing it.
Abstinence. The LA Times details Williams' substance history. I might say, as someone who has dealt with hundreds of substance abusers and addicts, Williams' was not a serious case of drug addiction.
According to the LA Times, Williams quit cocaine and drinking in 1982, and never used cocaine again. He consulted with a doctor at that time,
"It was a strange thing because my managers sent me to this doctor because they said I had this cocaine problem," Williams said. "He said, 'How much do you do?' And I said, 'A gram every couple of days,' and he said, 'You don't have a problem.'
"That was before they'd started to acknowledge it was psychologically addicting. And then at a certain point you realize, maybe it is. Physically I'm not craving it, but mentally I'm really thinking it might be a good idea." . . . .
Williams never went back to cocaine: "I knew that would kill me," he told the Guardian.
Williams quit both substances on his own, out of concern for the impending birth of his son.
Okay, Williams could quit cocaine, and I'm glad for him. But he seems to have had a heightened sensibility about the dangers of the drug. I have known many, many more serious cocaine users, almost none of whom died due to their use.
As to drinking, Williams remained largely abstinent. According to the LA Times, Williams
stayed sober for two decades, until he was filming on location in Alaska in 2003.
"I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking," Williams told the Guardian in 2010. "I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going ... maybe that will help."
From other comments he has made, Williams was not a moderate drinker. Nonetheless, he may have found that drinking did in some way help--maybe that was why he didn't want to quit, because drinking did something for him that he needed. Perhaps it relieved his suicidal urges. In any case, "It was three years until he entered the Hazelden residential rehab in Springbrook, Ore. It reportedly took a 2006 family intervention to get him there, and in 2010 he said he was still going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly." (His recovery didn't save his second marriage, which ended in divorce in 2008.)
Okay, Williams could quit drinking too. And perhaps it WAS better for him to do so. But his commitment to abstinent recovery in the years preceding his suicide, with a refresher course a month before he died, is not reassuring evidence for that proposition.
Summary. American mental health specialists are convinced that treating depression and quitting drinking are crucial to mental health. But Robin Williams is not the case to prove that point. Quite the contrary. Here I outline how America's commitment to treating mental illness has not produced positive results, and here how abstinence can be unhealthy.
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook. His website is peele.net.
Anonymous: "The World loves Pollyanna, simplistic answers." Me: Yes, I wrote this piece in response to the happy patina everyone tries to impose on what Williams' story tells us.
Anonymous 2: "Honestly, this is the weirdest article I've ever read." (This is the entire comment.)