Friday, August 22, 2014

Williams’ death reminds us that a patient’s relief might be a warning sign

By H. Steven Moffic, MD

One of my favorite movie moments is when Robin Williams signs on as an edgy D.J. by exclaiming "Good Morning, Vietnam" from the 1987 movie of the same name. Sometimes, I played the audio over and over, as if it could promise a good day. As he did so often, he found a way to not only lighten the sadness, but to do it in such a way that might be constructively critical.
Surely, the real life mornings were not often happy ones, as so many of our troops died or ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from that war. It is a lesson we are still learning, so that movie and his role is worth seeing again soon.

Now, after his reported suicide, that good morning seems more like a final good night.
Although he is probably best known for his manic comedy, he also played many serious roles. Most ironically now, he won an academy award in 1997 for playing an empathic therapist in the film “Good Will Hunting.”
Indeed, beloved entertainers like Robin Williams have a therapeutic role of sorts for society in the sense that they provide some relief—even if briefly—for the grief and stress of everyday life. For playing that societal role, such people become a repository for our hopes, dreams and demons. As we know for so many famous entertainers, it is not easy for them to have a successful private life—a private life that the public also tries to invade, as if they were related to us.

What we do know publicly is that Williams suffered from chronic depression and intermittent substance abuse. It is reported that he received treatment, including entering rehab just last month. Obviously, money to get the best treatment was not an issue, though how good the treatment was will remain unknown. We do know, however, that wealthy VIPs often receive treatment just as poor as low-income folks without resources. We also know that occasionally depression is a terminal illness, though that ending is not predictable.
Beyond the public information, and despite the understandable curiosity, this is not the time, nor should it ever be the time, to speculate about his diagnosis and reasons for committing suicide. In fact, the so-called "Goldwater Rule," called that for the inappropriate professional speculation about presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, ethically prohibits such speculations on the part of psychiatrists like myself.

Given this professional ethical principle, as well as the family's request for privacy, is there anything we can still learn from this apparent tragedy? The most intriguing detail that caught my attention was his last tweet and Instagram on July 31. Reportedly, he had wished his daughter a happy 25th birthday.

Why might this positive communication be of importance to us?
It reminded me of the only patient I ever had who committed suicide, long ago, when I was a resident in training. In the second session, the depression of this elderly man seemed to be less severe, but after that session he walked into Lake Michigan and drown. In the psychological autopsy, I never forgot the warning that when a depressed patient starts to seem better, they actually can be at higher risk for suicide.

Risky time
Why is that time of apparent improvement a risky time? The person can have more energy, then plan and complete a suicide. They may also feel relief at their decision, causing others to paradoxically feel relief. That is one of the reasons why it is so common to hear of the genuine surprise that the suicide occurred, as the person seemed to be happier.

What this means, not only for professionals, but for the public, is not to take at face value if a depressed person seems better. Be sure there is a sound explanation for the apparent improvement. 
Our only consolation must be that entertainers like Robin Williams keep on living in the form of their life’s work, like the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam,” that is so ubiquitously available nowadays. Even so, it would not be surprising if at the times we laugh once again at Robin William's humor, that the laughter will also be accompanied by some tears of grief.

H. Steven Moffic, MD, is a Life Fellow of the APA. Currently, he blogs regularly for Psychiatric Times, Behavioral Healthcare, and The Hastings Center's Over 65.

This blog was originally published in Behavioral Healthcare.

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