He was wealthy, internationally acclaimed, and creatively prolific, a celebrity who set many acting benchmarks. Then at age 63 he killed himself by hanging, and it remains difficult to understand why.
Robin Williams, a beloved comic genius, earned many accolades including an Academy Award, three Grammys, and five Golden Globes. His acting range covered an endearing extraterrestrial in the 1970’s hit television sit-com Mork & Mindy and an Oscar-winning performance as Dr. Sean McGuire, a circumspect psychotherapist in Good Will Hunting.
Depression has been the most popular explanation for Williams’ suicide. Depression is a brain disease, a biochemical misalignment, a mood disorder. Depression has been described as a dark tunnel, a state of aching sadness in which the afflicted person can no longer see liberating possibilities for brighter, happier days.
And while this explanation renders the loss of such a magnetic personality less mystifying, a psychological disorder may not fully contain self-destruction of this magnitude. Though he must have been depressed and felt isolated, what other psychic nightmares haunted him? What was Robin Williams thinking and feeling in the months, days, and hours before he hanged himself?
It behooves suicide experts to look beyond brain chemistry. Perhaps Williams, like other male peers who have self-terminated, may have finally reached a point of no return because of the socio-cultural context in which he lived. That context includes his generational affiliation and status as a post-sixty male.
Williams was born in 1951 and thus a member of the Baby Boomer generation. He grew up in times of ebullient optimism, a post-World War era of unbounded possibilities. During his two years at the prestigious Julliard School, he must have sensed the seismic power of his huge generation, a collective consciousness that bowled through the prejudices and predictabilities of older generations. So is it a leap to conclude that Williams, like millions of his peers, had enormous expectations?
In a pivotal book entitled Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, author Landon Y. Jones, formerly managing editor of People magazine, coined the label “baby boomers” and helped propel the generation toward the focal point of American culture. One popular generational narrative goes something like this: Boomers were given unprecedented abundance by the tireless, self-sacrificing GI Generation. Boomers can expect great things to happen throughout life: stellar education, brilliant careers, economic security, satisfying soul mates, and material acquisitions that ameliorate occasional setbacks.
Unmet dreams early in life can foment pessimistic assessments later. Recent research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald confirms that the proverbial mid-life crisis—the least happy time of life—arrives between age 45 and 65, with males skewing older. Further, the business of “life review” is relative. A dazzling career and enviable status to most observers may seem doggedly unsatisfying to an actor on the implacable stage of reality.
Higher than any other age group, suicide rates for Boomers rose 40 percent from 1999 through 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams was far from alone in his decision to self-terminate.
Yet, we are left wondering which of Williams’ own great expectations remained unmet. What might he have wished for that he had not achieved? Confidence in a future as luminous as his past? Freedom from addiction? Self-acceptance? Anonymity?
Added to the burden of oversized generational hopefulness could have been the weight of maleness. Son of a GI Generation father, Williams may have also learned that a man is what he does, not necessarily who he is. A man is a doctor, engineer, pastor, or actor. Maleness is concrete, specific, and unwavering toward the goal of external achievement. And for some men, the goalpost never stops moving farther downfield.
Even for those who choose the Occam’s razor explanation — that depression is the culprit — there may be another possibility: andropause or “male menopause.” Some authorities believe that reduction of the male hormone testosterone in middle-aged men can trigger depression and suicidal tendencies.
According to Jed Diamond, Ph.D., author of Male Menopause and Irritable Male Syndrome, andropause is a hormonal change in middle-aged men that has potentially devastating physical, psychological, interpersonal, social, sexual, and spiritual aspects. With these changes sometimes come insurmountable challenges of coming to terms with aging, and statistics confirm the perilous consequences of growing old a male.
“There is a silent health crisis,” observes Dr. Diamond, “with males living sicker than females and dying from fourteen of the top fifteen leading causes of death at rates higher than those for women.” Eighty percent of all suicides in the U.S. are men. The male suicide rate at midlife is three times higher than the rate for women. As men age over 65, the suicide rate accelerates like a speeding bullet to seven times higher.
In his portrayal of John Keating, the beloved English teacher in Dead Poets Society, Williams stood on a desk and asked his students why he would do this. To feel taller? No.
“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
He was a resounding voice of a generation. He won acclaim for his abilities to interpret the human condition in ways that made us laugh at ourselves. And so we are left questioning when he stopped seeing things in a different way, whether blinded by the tunnel of depression or great expectations dashed by sobering maturity. Or from being a man growing older, another Boomer male suffering an aching sigh of diminishing self-worth