What one of the world’s funniest men can teach us about depression

Like many people, I was saddened by the death of Robin Williams on many levels. While my connection with him was limited to the exposure I had through his canvas of work, I felt as though I knew him. He was well-known for his comedy and ability to make us laugh, characteristics and traits that can make it difficult to reconcile recent events with the actions of someone who would take his own life.


As a physician, I struggle to come to terms with the death of one of my favorite comedians.  While there has been mention of Parkinson’s disease as playing a contributing role, the underlying challenge was his battle with depression. On many occasions, he shared his struggle with depression and substance abuse, and he was quick to say that dealing with this disease was an on-going challenge that he personally faced every day.

The word depression is used frequently by people to describe their feelings and emotions, but it has a very specific meaning in medicine:

Clinical depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration interfere with everyday life for a longer period of time.

This should not be confused with sadness, a temporary feeling that is normally associated with some negative aspect of our lives or our surroundings.

The health system failed despite his resources, intellect and access to healthcare
Our understanding of depression is still limited – our treatment of this disease is still in its infancy and mostly limited to broad-brush therapies that impact neurotransmitters and are implicated, but not exclusively associated with depression. We have (mostly) moved past separating and isolating these patients from the general population, our ability to treat or cure depression remains stubbornly missing.

Our understanding of the brain is limited despite laudable attempts to jumpstart the process, such as the NIH BRAIN Initiative,  which aims to fill major gaps in our current knowledge of how the brain works. Progress, however, remains frustratingly slow and leaves our society with a subset of the population suffering from varying degrees of debilitating diseases of the brain, such as depression, mania, and schizophrenia.

What did Robin Williams teach us through his life and death?

  • Laughter is the best medicine
  • Being different is OK and its what makes life so much more interesting and worth living to its fullest
  • We all need and deserve endless compassion – Life is hard and it is our friends, family and personal relationships that help us navigate through the world we live in
  • We need empathy, compassion and tolerance in our society

Suicide is painful – not only for the unnecessary loss of life but for the trail of despair it leaves behind for all the people wondering:

what if…
should have…
could have done…

I’ve experienced it with friends and still think about them. Don’t let that be your legacy, reach out to someone today and remind them, and yourself, why life is great for both of you.


  • vpl2day

    Link in article for “the NIH BRAIN Initiative,” does not work.
    It is incorrectly entered as “http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/http:/www.nih.gov/science/brain/.”
    Correct link is http://www.nih.gov/science/brain/index.htm.

Dr. Nick van Terheyden

About Dr. Nick van Terheyden

This is a contributed post by Dr. Nick van Terheyden. As a pioneering creator in the evolution of healthcare technology, he brings a distinctive blend of medical practitioner and business strategist to the realm of health IT. To see more content like this, visit the Healthcare section of the blog.