Robin Williams’s death due to depression: Depressed men greater suicide risk

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Robin Williams | Teddy Roosevelt
Robin Williams | Teddy Roosevelt

WASHINGTON, August 14, 2014  – Robin Williams was certainly not the only man in history who suffered depression. However, most men do not acknowledge depression because it is thought of as a weakness

New research has not only determined men suffer from depression at the same rates as women, but it has also been shown that men are four times more likely to commit suicide as a result of depression.

A longitudinal study, performed over a period of time to determine lasting effect, at Harvard University tested nearly 5, 700 American adults, 41percent of which were men. Using data from this study, health policy researchers from the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University concluded men suffer from depression at the same rate as women.

Globally, mental health and substance abuse issues cause more illness, death and suicide than HIV, AIDS, diabetes, tuberculosis or auto accidents. This fact makes the new findings an important consideration for updating psychological criteria.


Mental health professionals have long suspected this phenomenon. Now research supports lingering doubts that men commit suicide at greater rates than women because men do not seek help and are far less likely to admit to being depressed. Many men do not know they are depressed because the dominant emotion they feel is anger, whereas women feel sadness.

Sigmund Freud, arguably the father of psychology, possibly psychiatry but definitely psychoanalysis, described depression as “anger turned inward.” Yet new evidentiary findings dispute Freud’s thinking—as new research often does—regarding these long-held beliefs.

A primary display of behavior in depressed men is outward anger and the assigning of blame. Risky behavior, road rage, short temper, loneliness, loss of interest, changes in appetite reduced energy, overworking, negativity and thoughts of death or suicide, substance abuse among other symptoms, are all behavioral hallmarks of male depression. The physical manifestation of male depression can be unexplained pain that does not respond to treatment.

Men are often in denial over depression and even if they suspect it, slow to seek help, as men view depression as weakness. Men own more weapons than women and have instant access to them when they feel overwhelmed. Accessibility to weapons may contribute to impulsive actions that result in death by suicide.

Men may be more comfortable discussing emotional issues with a primary care physician they have an established relationship with, rather than being referred to a mental healthcare specialist.  This makes training primary care specialists to detect and evaluate male depression critical.

When men behave as depression indicates, recommendations from friends, spouses or family members are often viewed as an intrusion and rejected. If a primary care physician recommends a visit to a mental health professional, there may be more serious consideration and less likelihood of rejection.

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  • Tim Kern

    Acknowledgment of depression in others is a career-ender for them. It’s not a “sign of weakness;” it’s a warning signal for impending violence.

    If it’s treated, it’s a job disqualifier; if untreated, it’s… anyone’s guess what will happen. Best to keep a job and one’s mouth shut, rather than be unemployable and have a damned good reason to be depressed.

    • Mountjoy

      Tim:

      Archaic as it seems, any mental illness can be a stigma in the minds of employers.

      • Tim Kern

        …and treatment is seen as even a worse stigma.

        • Mountjoy

          Yep…..this is one reason mental health care providers and their clients work in a veil of secrecy.

          Many men act as if depression is the inability to ‘man up’ but those who accuse have no clue of this disorder and/or have been depressed themselves.

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  • also of clan McLaurin

    Violent ideas towards the self and others experienced together are a very common presentation of distress in crisis, irrespective of a diagnosis of “depression” or even mental illness. All mental health care professionals at the coalface will observe this given enough time. It seems the standard textbooks ignore it. It has no classification, despite ubiquity. It’s a key issue for the science of behavioural neurology, yet is curiously absent despite its centricity in mental health care.

    I think Freud was quite right about the concept of “turning against the self”. It’s the norm rather than the exception and vital to understanding internalised self-other dynamics and memories.

    From the standpoint of someone controlled by anger, using it to dominate and control a situation, given no other way of letting it all hang out, it’s common for a man to start crying, to introject that anger and talk of suicide, visibly crestfallen as though emasculated when they hit a brick wall. I lock people up regularly and it happens reliably in the mentally ill with comorbid personality problems.

    Melancholia, on the other hand is quite distinct. There’s often excessive and even delusional guilt. Psychotic depression usually means a bipolar diathesis. Unfortunately as people get older, the psychotic features tend to group into worries about money (even having enough clothes), guilt, incurable disease, of being an intolerable burden to family and nihilism. It can lead to fatal action.

    I’ve long thought Williams had a subtle bipolarity. Mork is an archetype of the jolly hypomanic.
    He mastered control of flights of ideas, in a comic way. That’s his genius. Not sure why he killed himself, as he clearly had a lot of reasons to live. Sure, he made some decisions he likely regretted, with the chickens likely to roost when depressed, but he was no beggar, yet he was worried about money at the time of death. Pointedly, he killed himself whilst his wife slept in another room. Wonder if he erroneously thought they’d be better off without him, as the melancholic does.

    On the other hand, when violence to others is unacceptable or impossible, as mentioned earlier, killing yourself can be an act of violence intended to hurt others, either rationally or delusionally, eg to those at home at the time of death, likely to find the body, forever traumatised, especially with a gruesome one like hanging.

    Williams’ death looks like a case of mental illness, maybe with intoxication and guilt at this failure to master addiction, in a life so full of success.

    • Mountjoy

      McLaurin:

      Well stated.

      Depression is my specialty and causation enigmatic yet very treatable.

      I think Robin was overwhelmed with melancholy. His life was not where he anticipated and often, depression is anger turned inward.

      Perhaps Robin’s inner turmoil was too much to bear after 63 years of struggle..

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  • guitarfan29

    “Researchers have taken advantage of Sweden’s comprehensive health records to determine important risk factors for suicide.

    The landmark study, a collaboration between Lund University in Sweden
    and Stanford University, showed that the rate of suicide among men is
    almost three times that of women.

    In the U.S., the rate is even higher — almost four times as many
    males as females die by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease
    Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and
    Control.

    Being young, single and having little education were stronger risk
    factors for suicide among men, while mental illness was a stronger risk
    factor among women.

    Unemployment was the strongest social risk factor among women, whereas being single was the strongest among men.

    The strength of the study was robust in that it covered a range of
    different diseases in both inpatient and outpatient care as well as
    social factors.”

    Men’s suicide rates are 4-6x greater than that of women. Men also now make up the vast majority of the homeless and the unemployed. We can all probably agree that love, connection, companionship, family, etc are far more meaningful in life than careerism, money, and stuff. So who is truly losing out women or men?

    I would argue men do by huge margins now. What is more sickening is we treat depression as if it’s some chemical imbalance, when the science on that is shoddy at best. It is a denial of the real objective things men are facing. Women hold the vast majority of the power in relationships and courtship. They initiate the vast majority of viroces too, and statistically have vastly more mates in life.

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