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The Catalyst

Chairman shares personal reflections about actor Robin Williams

By Thomas W. Uhde, M.D.
Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Three weeks later, the country still mourns the loss of Robin Williams, a truly inspirational actor and comedian who in so many ways brought laughter and self–reflection into our lives. 

While most people will remember his extraordinary wit, I was always impressed by the thoughtful, caring and sobering side of his creative works.  

Through his intelligent humor and improvisation, Mr. Williams was able to stimulate serious discussions about controversial social issues.  Part of his creative genius was his ability to make each of us confront our own personal biases and prejudices in a non–threatening manner.  For me, Mr. Williams often elicited “why am I laughing” questions. His humor did not denigrate others, as can sometimes be the case in comedy; but rather, his work often challenged us to scrutinize our own beliefs, life challenges and insecurities. Perhaps more effective than many psychotherapeutic modalities, Mr. Williams was able, through his characterizations, to promote self–exploration and encourage us to consider other possibilities without our even knowing that this was taking place. And, he accomplished this for so many of us for only the price of a movie ticket or a cable subscription which is considerably less expensive than psychotherapy.

Mr. William’s death elicits sadness and anger.

I get the sadness!

But, why does his apparent suicide elicit anger?  

Maybe because:

  • Our society fails to recognize that depression is a serious, disabling, potentially life-threatening medical illness;
  • There is a public perception that depression is a personal weakness rather than the 8th leading cause of death in the United States;
  • Only a minority of people suffering from major depression, including those with a past history of suicide attempts, are able to obtain or receive  evidence-informed treatments;
  • Insurance providers fail to abide by the true intent of the federally mandated Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which, if appropriately enforced, would “really” provide improved access to mental health care;
  • Highly creative people have an increased prevalence of mood disorders (including, and perhaps, especially, bipolar disorder), and we as a society fail to provide appropriate mental health care;
  • There remains, even among many health care providers, a stigmatization about people suffering from mental illness, as well as mental health providers themselves, which leads to a failure in seeking and providing satisfactory mental health care; and
  • There is a decrease in research funding for the causes and treatment of brain–based mental illnesses.

In Robin Williams, we have lost a creative genius from an apparent suicide. If he had remained with us, he perhaps one day would again (Good Will Hunting) been able to employ his creativity, humor and intelligent wit to uncover and reduce our society’s widespread harmful and largely oblivious prejudice against those suffering from major depression, addictions and other mental illnesses.

Editor’s note: Thomas Uhde, M.D., is professor and chairman of MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry


September 5, 2014



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