Robin Williams: His Addiction and Mental Illness

On August 11, 2014, the world said goodbye to acclaimed actor-comedian Robin Williams. The 63-year-old Williams was discovered by authorities in his California home, unresponsive at approximately 11:55 a.m. The assumed cause of death is suicide by asphyxiation. According to his publicist, Williams had mental illness problems including battling extreme depression up until his death. He leaves behind a wife, three children, legions of fans and a legendary career. Williams will forever be remembered for his boundless energy, comedy, and extraordinary theatrical range including his roles as Mrs. Doubtfire, the Genie in Aladdin, Theodore Roosevelt in Night at the Museum, and countless others.

During a career that spanned four decades, Williams suffered from a highly publicized battle with addiction and poor mental health. In the early part of his career, Robin Williams was on drugs, specifically cocaine, but quit both drugs and alcohol after the birth of his son and the death of his friend and fellow comedian John Belushi. He was sober for 20 years, but unfortunately, it did not last. He started drinking again in 2003. Robin Williams had alcohol often and in excess for three years before he checked himself back into rehab in 2006. He also suffered from bipolar disorder. In July of 2014, Williams checked himself into rehab once more in an effort to focus on his commitment to sobriety.

The Connection Between Robin Williams’ Mental Illness and Addiction

Williams’ addiction and passing is another tragic example of the relationship between addiction and mental illness, but he is not the only one. It is just another reminder that these problems can affect anyone, even those that bring so much laughter to such a wide audience. It also highlights the struggle that millions face in their continued quest to get well. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that six out of ten substance abusers also suffer from some other form of mental illness.1 These conditions often directly affect one another and must both be addressed during treatment. At Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, we offer mental health and addiction programs in South Florida, so that our patients can tackle all their issues at once.

It is generally unclear which comes first: addiction or mental disorder. Establishing a cause and effect relationship is difficult because a mental disorder may not be diagnosed until symptoms have worsened to unmanageable or problematic levels. Additionally, many substance abusers are unable to pinpoint the exact date they began abusing. Mental illness and addiction can interact in numerous ways such as:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse can trigger certain symptoms of a mental disorder.
  • Mental illness can make a person want to use drugs or alcohol in an effort to self-medicate. This can be to ease anxiety, combat depression, or to drown out trauma.
  • Substance abuse disorders and other mental illnesses are often caused by overlapping factors, such as genetics, brain deficits, and exposure to trauma or stress.
  • Drugs and alcohol can cause an individual with a preexisting mental illness to experience the onset of symptoms for the first time.

Like Robin Williams, Millions of Americans Suffer from a Dual Diagnosis

A person who is struggling with both addiction and a psychological disorder is said to have a dual diagnosis or comorbid disorders. These individuals require a specialized type of rehabilitation, providing concurrent treatment for both conditions. Unfortunately, Robin Williams’ addiction and mental health issues fell into this classification, but he was unable to fully move forward.

Some people may also have no idea they’re even suffering from a mental disorder and have gone several years without treatment. Too often people may feel sad without realizing that their sadness requires professional care like our depression treatment program in Palm Beach. Meanwhile, an addiction disorder has set in and potentially worsened the problem and caused severe damage to their lives. This is why addiction has little to do with choice, and everything to do with a series of dysfunctional thoughts leading to destructive behavior.

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, showed that approximately 8.4 million American adults were suffering from both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. Of those people, only 7.9 percent received treatment for both conditions, while 53.7 percent received no treatment at all.2 While Robin Williams’ cocaine, alcohol, and mental illness problems were addressed during his time in rehab, not everyone will take this step.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that six out of ten substance abusers also suffer from some other form of mental illness.

Addiction is a Chronic Disease

In an interview in 2006, Williams stated: “It’s addiction — not caused by anything, it’s just there. It waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.” Robin Williams’ addiction was a constant struggle for him and these words have become familiar for too many. They remind all of us that recovery from addiction and mental illness is a lifelong endeavor.

This may be the most valuable lesson of all to take away from Robin Williams’ addiction tragedy. Drug addiction and alcoholism must be treated like chronic diseases that need a lifetime of treatment. If a person was suffering from another chronic condition – such as cancer, diabetes or arthritis – they wouldn’t just decide they were all healed and cease taking medication, because doing so would have severe health effects. The same applies to addiction. Our drug and alcohol detox programs in Palm Beach work with patients to remove their dependence on the drug and also to provide them with tools to help them achieve long-term sobriety.

There’s a reason why lifetime abstinence is almost universally recommended in any substance abuse rehabilitation. While moderation drinking and harm reduction techniques have had limited success on those who have not developed deeply rooted addictions, research has consistently shown that complete abstinence is the best way to avoid relapse. Most problem drinkers and alcoholics have never shown the ability to control their substance abuse and drink in moderation, even when facing severe life consequences.

To expect them to be able to self-rehab and manage alcohol abuse is unwise and creates a slippery slope. Dr. Tom Horvath, former president of the American Psychological Association’s Society on Addiction Psychology, warns against the moderation approach. “For a person with no history of successful moderation, becoming a moderator is unrealistic. The consequences of having a binge can be disastrous.” Horvath said. “A good candidate for moderation shouldn’t have a significant physical dependence. They should have a supportive social network and be socially stable (i.e employed, family, home life).”3

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

The stigma surrounding addiction and mental health conditions often causes people to suffer in silence. Whether it’s for fear of professional repercussions, worry about the impact on family and friends, or an unwillingness to admit that they need help, there are far too many people who don’t seek and receive the help they need.

Addiction is not only a chronic disease, it’s also a progressive one. This means that it only gets worse with time. Worsening factors include health, finances, relationships, career status and more. The longer addiction and mental disorders are left untreated, the more severe the life consequences.

Robin Williams’ addiction was a contributing factor to his suicide. Do not let this happen to your loved one. If you suspect that you or your loved are vulnerable to relapse, even after years of sobriety, please let someone know immediately so they can get you the help that you need. Contact our treatment center today at 888-280-4763.


Sources:

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse – Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illnesses
  2. SAMHSA – Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings
  3. CBS News – 14Days: Moderation, a radical option in treating addiction