Hollywood star leaves legacy of openness about mental health

SCREEN ROLE: Robin Williams as Tom Dobbs in Man of the Year

SCREEN ROLE: Robin Williams as Tom Dobbs in Man of the Year

First published in Leader
Last updated
The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Health & Education Editor

Most fans will remember Robin Williams for his bubbly, energetic comedy roles.

He made people laugh with memorable performances in Mork & Mindy and Mrs Doubtfire, but behind the cheerful exterior he admitted there were problems he found it difficult to shrug off.

Williams spoke many times about his battles with alcohol and cocaine and in a 2010 interview with the Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead he talked about suffering from anxiety.

The actor, who was promoting World's Greatest Dad - a film about a father who fakes a suicide note from his dead son - spoke of feeling "alone and afraid" when he started drinking again in 2003 after 20 years sober.

"It's just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn't," he said.

Asked what he was afraid of, he replied: "Everything. It's just a general all-round arggghhh. It's fearfulness and anxiety."

After three years he went to rehab and continued his recovery by attending weekly AA meetings.

Williams also admitted he had been a workaholic, telling Aitkenhead: "You have this idea that you'd better keep working otherwise people will forget. And that was dangerous. And then you realise, no, actually if you take a break people might be more interested in you."

The actor, who had his aortic valve replaced in 2009, added: "Now, after the heart surgery, I'll take it slow."

At the time of the interview he said he felt happier and was "not afraid to be unhappy", adding: "That's OK too."

Sadly it appears the anxiety and depression which had plagued him had returned prior to his tragic death.

Here in the North-East Williams’ death will be mourned by many whose lives have been touched by mental illness and saw the extrovert actor as an advocate for patients.

Durham North MP Kevan Jones, who has won praise from mental health charities for his willingness to talk about the breakdown he suffered in 1996 due to depression, said Williams tragic death showed that mental illness could affect everyone from the poorest to the richest.

“This just shows that depression and mental health is an equal opportunities conditions. It doesn’t discriminate whether you are wealthy and successful or an ordinary family person,” he adds.

While many years have elapsed since his acute episode of depression Kevan says that he still suffers from depression today - but now he knows how to handle it.

“What Robin Williams does illustrate is that the group that are terrible at asking for help are men. In our region groups like Mental Health North East try to get them to come forward and ask for help with mental health problems,” he adds

The MP says he remains worried about the high rates of suicide among young men in the North-East and urges them to be more open and seek help.

“Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness,” he adds.

Lyn Boyd, chief executive of the Birtley-based charity Mental Health North East, says:

“He was a great spokesman for patients and he was a strong believer in the idea that mental health was the result of society wearing people down,” says Lyn.

“As well as being very open about his mental health problems he was very scathing about some of the poor treatments used and how people with mental health problems are perceived.”

“In my view he was a sane made in a made world,” she adds.

Williams’ openness about mental health had helped to make it easier to talk about something that used to be taboo, says Lyn.

But while the general population was more tolerant of mental health problems, Lyn says she detects a steady rise in mental health issues in our society, particularly among the young.

“Among young people the problem is growing. Things like self-harm and eating disorders are going up,” says Lyn.

“The young people are telling us that these problems are getting worse in schools and I think it is just part of the world we are living in. It is certainly not easy for young people to find their place any more.”

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