Robin Williams and mental health: Misconceptions about depression

WATCH: No amount of fame, money or humour could stave off the anguish of depression Robin Williams was struggling with. As Robin Gill reports, his death has Canadians talking about the warning signs and how to help.

TORONTO – He was an actor and comedian who entertained people around the world for decades. But 63-year-old Robin Williams died Monday in an apparent suicide.

Williams was found unconscious at his home in Tiburon, California and was pronounced dead shortly after noon local time Monday.

“He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss,” the star’s rep, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement.

READ MORE: Investigators believe Robin Williams hanged himself in bedroom

Mental health awareness is gaining momentum but there are still plenty of misconceptions floating around, Canadian experts say. Depression is a disease that’s often misunderstood and that can cause its victims to feel stigmatized.

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Dr. David Conn, a staff psychiatrist and vice president of education at Baycrest Health Services, suggests that Williams’ tragic story is shining a light on depression.

“When a celebrity openly suffers from some kind of mental illness or an addiction problem – alcohol or drugs – it really wakes us up and makes us think,” Conn told Global News.

He and Toronto-based registered psychologist Dr. Oren Amitay discuss common misconceptions about the disease.

Watch above: Crystal Goomansingh reports on mental illness and it’s powerful grip.


It’s not just feeling sad. Amitay suggests that some people think depression is akin to moments of sadness that they’ve pulled themselves out of, but it’s deeper than that.

“Depression is not just feeling sad amplified, it’s a whole different ball game,” he explained. Incessant feelings of sadness, hopelessness or loneliness are just one of the symptoms. In other instances, it affects peoples’ mental, physical and emotional state: they lose their appetite, they can’t sleep properly, they feel worthless, they isolate themselves or they can’t even get out of bed.

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And the battle can be long-term. Williams had very public troubles with addiction throughout his career. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, he was using cocaine. He went to rehab in 2006 to deal with an alcohol problem. By July this year, he was at an addiction centre in Minnesota.

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“Just because it goes away, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever,” Amitay said.

Conn said that there’s often an overlap between mental illness and addiction issues.

“Individuals with depression may decide to treat themselves and use alcohol or other drugs as a form of treatment,” he explained. There’s also a “considerable overlap” between alcohol, substance abuse and completed suicide, he said.

WATCH: Dr. Jeffrey Lieberan, Chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, discusses the factors that could have contributed to Robin Williams’ taking his own life.

You can’t just snap out of it. The experts say this is among the greatest myths about depression. “Why can’t you just get over it?” critics may ask. They’ll suggest depression is a sign of weakness or vulnerability, but that’s not the case.

Unlike physical wounds that heal, overcoming depression isn’t as simple as giving it time, Amitay said. And it has nothing to do with strength or willpower – sometimes, people with depression could be dealing with a history of bad treatment, it could be triggered by a major life event, or you could be biologically susceptible.

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“It’s a disease – it’s like saying you’re weak because you have cancer,” Amitay said. And these false notions could be what makes victims feel stigmatized and scared to reach out for help, he warned.

READ MORE: Many boys not reaching out for mental health help

In Williams’ case, a Hamilton, Ont. cop tweeted, “I truly wish you could have chosen to set a better example for those suffering with mental health challenges.” (He subsequently deleted the tweet and apologized for his “poor choice of words.”)

Conn clarifies: in some cases of depression, people can feel helpless and the choice between living or dying may not be clear to them. “When an individual is so deeply depressed, they don’t necessarily have a huge amount of control, the impulse to commit suicide may be so strong,” he said.

It’s not always obvious to friends and family. Williams may have been battling his inner demons but as a seasoned professional, you wouldn’t spot any troubles on the surface. That’s not an anomaly, Amitay said.

While some people suffering from depression can exhibit warning signs, such as weight loss, changes to physical appearance, agitation or lethargy, others may not show that anything’s wrong at all.

“Some people are good at compartmentalizing – being able to put aside feelings or thoughts in the moment and attend to the task at hand,” Amitay explained.

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It’s common with celebrities in the limelight. They have parents, agents, and producers relying on them to put up a façade. If they’re upset, tired or unprepared, they hide it.

“But alone at home, in the dark, when there’s no distractions, that’s when the nightmares start coming in,” Amitay said.

It doesn’t discriminate. About one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. It affects people of all ages, education, income levels, and cultures.

“There are many people who think that mental illness is something suffered by a minority of the population, when in fact any of us are at risk of developing depression,” Conn said.

It’s okay to ask for help or to offer a listening ear, too. If you suspect your loved one may be going through depression, it’s okay to ask, Amitay suggests. Don’t be dissuaded or think that you’re making things worse by checking in on a friend or family member.

“Just act tactfully, carefully and respectfully. The greatest thing someone can do is talk to them. You don’t have to have depression to understand, you’re not giving advice or trite statements,” he said. Telling your relative that things will get better may not be consoling, but listening and letting them know they have your support goes a long way.

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“You’re not going to cure them, fix them or solve their problems, but connecting with people is a big thing. For a lot of people it’s just being heard,” Amitay said.

READ MORE: Toronto hospital launching project for youth mental health services

Resources are available, too. Don’t be discouraged to reach out for help, the experts say. There’s mental health care, psychotherapy, medication and other viable options. In Ontario and many parts of Canada, health care could cover off expenses for therapy or drugs, but there are also resources that won’t cost you any money at all.

Distress centres, help phone lines and even emergency room counsellors are on hand to help you, the experts say.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 9-1-1. For more resources, click here.

– With files from Global News’ John R. Kennedy

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