In my Father’s Day message this past weekend, I provided examples of some males we might think are good men but who are not good at being men. In those examples I mentioned Robin Williams. While he was an acclaimed actor and comedian, he committed suicide due to depression. I proposed this made him a good man but not good at being a man. In this, I may have made a mistake.
An Example of Male Suicide
Robin Williams took his own life in 2014. His death by suicide was a notable tragedy which surprised and shocked people around the world. Having developed drug and alcohol addictions throughout his life, Williams also had mental health battles with depression. When he committed suicide by hanging, in his home, on 11 August 2014, everyone just naturally assumed he had become the prototypical sad clown or tortured comedian (hollywoodreporter.com)
According to Robin Williams’ widow, it was not depression that led to his death (read more at theguardian.com and fastcompany.com). Susan Schneider-Williams has since made it known her husband was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) in October 2013.
Like many of the over 100,000 Australians with LBD (dementia.org.au), Robin Williams’ battles with other health and addiction problems interfered with a timely or accurate diagnosis. His widow now serves on the Board of Directors for the American Brain Foundation. Her goal is helping physicians gain a deeper understanding of LBD so individuals may receive appropriate treatment. Here’s what we can learn about LBD from Robin Williams’ experience (lewybodyresourcecenter.org):
- When Robin Williams’ symptoms began, they seemed unrelated: sleeplessness, insomnia, and an unusual level of stress and anxiety.
- Later, symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease emerged, including a weakening of the voice and a hand tremor.
- According to his wife, Williams’ fear and anxiety had “skyrocketed to a point that was alarming”.
Robin Williams was an acclaimed comedian and actor. One of my favourites! I especially enjoyed his work in the Mork & Mindy television show. I also enjoyed his roles in movies such as The World According to Garp (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), The Fisher King (1991), and Seize The Day (1986).
I knew Williams was an avid cyclist, turning to athletics to combat his addictions and bolster his mental health. I did not know he was also a runner. His attained a personal best (PB) of 34:21 minutes at a 10K run in Central Park in 1975. Additionally, Williams was involved in various philanthropic projects, most notably founding Comic Relief USA with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal in 1986.
In my estimation, being a successful comedian and actor, a cyclist and runner, and philanthropist made Robin Williams a good man. Yet I used him as an example of one not good at being a man because he took his life. He was unable to cope due to struggles with mental health resulting in depression. Men should be able to cope, right?
Williams did commit suicide by hanging because of his depression and low mental health, but his diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia would have pushed him over the edge. This common neurodegenerative disease of ageing causes gradual brain damage and would have been intolerable, especially for Williams.
Is Male Suicide a Legitimate Question?
The French philosopher Albert Camus once argued, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”. He believed the question of suicide naturally arose as a solution to the absurdity of life.
For Robin Williams, life was certainly absurd and exceedingly painful. Knowing his story more fully now, I can sympathise with his choice to take his own life even though I would never recommend it for anyone ever. Yet, it turns out, life is absurd and exceedingly painful for many males in Australia.
Male Suicide in Australia
Male suicide in Australia is a bigger deal than anyone lets on. Our mental health too needs to be taken seriously!
The Australian Men’s Health Forum strongly argues for a gender-response to suicide prevention because while suicide kills eight people per day in Australia, six of them are men. According to the AMHF:
- In 2018, suicide killed 3046 people in Australia. A total of 726 or 24% were women and the remaining 2320 people or 76% were men and boys.
- 81% of male suicides linked to relationship separation.
- 83% of male suicides linked to financial issues.
- 85% of male suicides linked to pending legal matters.
- 86% of male suicides linked to recent or pending unemployment.
- Males account for 87% of work-related suicides.
- Males account for 87% of health lost to alcohol-related suicide.
- Males account for 98% of suicides involving firearms.
In contrast to these statistics:
- 50% of female suicides in Australia are more likely linked to a mental illness.
- 40% of female suicides are more likely linked to a previous suicide attempt.
This is not to diminish death by suicide among women, but male suicide is statistically different! This fact makes clear it requires a different approach. Closing the gender gap and reducing male suicide to the same level as female suicide would prevent the deaths of more than 1500 men and boys a year.
With a different approach to male suicide and suicide prevention among men, maybe Robin Williams’ condition would have been correctly diagnosed before his death and he could have received more appropriate treatment and support. What Williams did not need then nor now is anyone thinking he was less of a man because of his struggles. I deeply regret doing so and apologise.