The suicide of comedian Robin Williams this week has left us reeling. Whenever someone so successful takes his own life, we’re reminded that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Even celebrities aren’t immune to its ravages. In fact, being rich and famous may even heighten a sense of despair for someone who seems to have it all.
On TV, in the newspapers, and online, commentators, journalists, and the general public are speculating about what led to Williams’ final expression of hopelessness. Almost certainly, they are wrong. Even those of us in the mental health profession can’t always say what pushes a person over the edge. And we definitely can’t draw any conclusions about the inner torment of someone we know only from his public persona.
Even so, ignorance hasn’t stopped many from weighing in with their opinions, as a Facebook post I saw this morning highlighted. It said,”Pharmaceutical companies are evil.”
I don’t even know where to begin. Is the poster suggesting Williams was taking psychotropic meds, which led to his death? Is she alluding to the Black Box warnings on some antidepressants about the potential side-effect of increased suicidal ideation (usually among teens and young adults)? The only thing we know for sure is that whatever treatment Williams was receiving, it failed.
I doubt similar accusations would be lobbed at Big Pharma if someone with uncontrolled hypertension were to die of a heart attack.
Misconceptions about medications used to treat depression unfortunately keep many people who could benefit from psychopharmacology from taking full advantage of the range of options available to them. I don’t know if Robin Williams was on antidepressants. But he was in and out of therapeutic programs over the years, both for depression and for alcohol and drug abuse. He suffered from a mental illness, and it ultimately killed him.
Let’s stop all the commentary by self-proclaimed experts and simply mourn the loss of a beloved entertainer who brought happiness to millions but couldn’t find it for himself.
I know everyone’s been giving you a hard time lately for saying in your recent E! interview that 9-5 moms have it easier than you movie stars because “when you have an office job . . .it’s routine and, you know, you can do all the stuff in the morning and then you come home in the evening.” You think your life is so much harder because “when you’re shooting a movie, they’re like, ‘We need you to go to Wisconsin for two weeks,’ and then you work 14 hours a day and that part of it is very difficult. I think to have a regular job and be a mom is not as, of course there are challenges, but it’s not like being on set.”
Like working mom Mackenzie Dawson, who skewered you in her NY Post “Open Letter to Gwyneth,” I found your comments utterly out of touch with life outside the rarified bubble of Planet Hollywood. You might as well have said, “Like, let them eat cake.”
But after I picked up my jaw off the floor, I switched to professional mode and tried to see things from your perspective. And I realized you’ve taught us all a very important lesson.
When you’re unhappy, it’s easy to imagine how much better your life would be if only you were [fill in the blank] . . . single, married, younger, older, thinner, prettier, richer, or—hard as it might be for most of us to believe—poorer and more ordinary. Your fantasy of what life as an office worker would be like should remind us that when we think the grass would be greener, we haven’t got a clue.
I can’t, of course, surmise your mental condition just by reading the statement you made on your website Goop about your split with husband Chris Martin. But no matter how you try to spin it—by calling it “conscious uncoupling” instead of divorce, say—ending a 10-year marriage and working out the logistics of coparenting when you have young kids can’t be easy, even for a celebrity.
So, Gwyneth, here’s my unsolicited advice to you: find yourself a good cognitive-behavioral therapist to help you challenge your distorted thinking. And, while you’re at it, you might consider hiring a new publicist.
Lynne S. Gots, PhD
I just cleaned out the fridge. No more unidentifiable slimy greens in the vegetable crisper, shriveled limes in the fruit bin, and molding jars of pickled okra and salsa on the shelves. I’m planning a roasted eggplant dip and cucumber salad for dinner tonight to use up the last of this week’s CSA produce.
I was feeling pretty virtuous until I opened the freezer. Sharing space with the plastic containers of precooked beans, quinoa, and brown rice, alongside the loaves of artisian whole-grain bread, were three half-gallons of ice cream, three pints of premium gelato (there had been four until I polished one off last night—“to free up shelf space”) and three pints of frozen yogurt. I’d purchased one of the gelatos and one of the frozen yogurts. My husband had stockpiled the rest.
He’s pretty health-conscious most of the time, avoiding excess salt, eating massive salads every night, and eschewing red meat. Formerly a cooked vegetable hater, he’s even become a devotee of roasted Brussels sprouts and kale. So how to explain his frozen dessert hoarding habit?
I found the answer in a New York Times article, “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” Several studies of consumer choices in fast-food restaurants found that posting calorie information did little to reduce calorie consumption overall. In fact, at Subway, people actually ate higher calorie meals despite reading the nutritional information, possibly because the chain offerred a $5 special on footlong subs.
Behaviorial economists conclude that good intentions take a back seat to economic incentives when we’re choosing what to order in a restaurant. That also seems to be what’s going on when my husband shops at the Giant. When I’ve asked him to cut back on buying ice cream because I end up eating more of it than he does, he says, “But it was on sale. Two for the price of one!”
I can’t get upset with him. It’s not his fault. Behavioral economics made him do it.
So I guess I don’t have to beat myself up either for lacking the willpower to eat fruit for dessert instead of gelato. And for not choosing the frozen yogurt—which, as I said, is in ample supply in my freezer and would be a lower calorie option. Because another study of consumer behavior found that people presented with a range of healthy, neutral, and unhealthy menu items most often went for the unhealthy foods.
As psychologists do, the researcher coined a term to explain the tendency to make a nutritionally unsound decision when more nutritious choices are available: “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Just seeing the healthy menu options apparently makes us feel healthier and thus gives us the license to overindulge.
So the next time I’m tucking into a bowl of Talenti caramel cookie crunch, I won’t blame myself for my lack of willpower. And I might even top it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.
Because I’ll know it’s just a case of vicarious goal fulfillment.
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