Robin Williams and The Cultural Delusion We Are Conquering Mental Illness

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Robin Williams’ apparent suicide is being used as an argument for more mental health treatment. Does that argument – or the treatment – work?

For some time we have assumed we are making great headway in fighting mental illness, and that it will soon disappear.

Here are the 1975 words of Norman Garmezy in his master lecture to the American Psychological Association: “We stand on the threshold of advances in the biological sciences so relevant to psychopathology that one can look forward in the decades ahead to an ultimate resolution of the major psychotic disorders that have plagued mankind for centuries.”

Forty years later, we have fallen far short of Garmezy’s anticipated scenario. But this has not dampened our hopes in the intervening years. The very movement to label emotional disorders as “illnesses,” along with popular and public health campaigns repeating ad infinitum, “mental illness is an illness like any other,” implies that schizophrenia, depression, bi-polar disorder, ADHD, et al. are curable and will be eliminated altogether.

Which brings us to the sad case of Robin Williams, a man who not only had much to live for, but one who frequently resorted to treatment for his depression and addictions. In July, the Huffington Post reported, “Robin Williams has checked into rehab for continued sobriety… he remains extremely proud” of what he has accomplished through treatment.

The number one recommendation following his death?

Seek treatment for problems like Williams’!

At the risk of insensitivity and gallows humor, it seems the treatment was a success but, that, unfortunately, the patient died. Although Williams shares this fate of dying almost immediately following rehab with any number of high profile cases – Amy Winehouse, Cory Monteith, Philip Seymour Hoffman – his case is unique in that he died by his own hand, rather than due to the substance use for which he was treated. Can we make sense of Williams’ death to help others?

Although Williams shares this fate of dying almost immediately following rehab with any number of high profile cases – Amy Winehouse, Cory Monteith, Philip Seymour Hoffman – his case is unique in that he died by his own hand, rather than due to the substance use for which he was treated.-Stanton Peele

Here is another optimistic quote from the 1970s combining the outlook for mental illness and addiction by neurologist Richard Restak. Restak has written frequently for newspapers, appears on the Today Show, NPR, etc., and his best sellers The Brain and The Mind were companion books to PBS series. In all these endeavors, Restak maintains the same quixotic line of thought that motivated this 1977 vision: “It’s hard to leave out the exclamation points when you are talking about a veritable philosopher’s stone – a group of substances that hold out the promise of alleviating, or even eliminating, such age-old medical bugaboos as pain, drug addiction, and, among other mental illnesses, schizophrenia.” (Restak is speaking of the endorphins.)

An Epidemic of Psychiatric Disorders

Although Restak and his audience have seemingly never become aware of it, the wheels have come off this wagon. In fact, we are undergoing an epidemic of psychiatric disorders. Not only have schizophrenia and depression skyrocketed since Restak blithely predicted their demise, but so too have conditions like ADHD and bi-polar disorder about which we were hardly aware in 1977.

Because there are so many more diagnoses of disorders and medications dispensed to treat mental illness, many theorists speculate that we are simply diagnosing nonexistent problems. But this claim is as unrealistic as the claims that we are curing mental illness. More and more people, starting in America, but spreading worldwide, are experiencing genuine psychological distress. Robin Williams, after all, killed himself.

How does Williams’ case reflect on the claim that mental illness – in his case depression – is a medical disorder for which we have effective treatments?-Stanton Peele

How does Williams’ case reflect on the claim that mental illness – in his case depression – is a medical disorder for which we have effective treatments? Why are he and so many others depressed? Were his parents and many others of their generation as depressed and suicidal as Williams? If not, why has this “disease” increased in the intervening years? By simple logical processing, we are brought up short when conceiving of depression and mental illness as curable diseases.

Moreover, given that Williams personally was long ago diagnosed for depression and addiction, and he had every means at his disposal to treat it, how come it was never halted, but rather worsened? What confidence might you and I have that we would be well served to go into treatment for our own depression? Think of this: under the label of “nervous breakdown,” before the modern mental health movement took off in the 1950s, people regularly overcame depression by undergoing “rest cures” in sanitariums.

Are There Genetic Sources for Mental Illness and Addiction?

Why this worldwide growth in mental illness is occurring would obviously require a comprehensive investigation and treatise to answer. Here is the short version. People are burdened emotionally by a growing sense of their own impotence in an increasingly unmanageable external world, while they turn inwards (and to manageable electronic devices, like iPhones and games) for solace and escape. At the same time, they are taught to look to failures in their brains (encouraged by many like Restak) for explanations for their problems.

People are burdened emotionally by a growing sense of their own impotence in an increasingly unmanageable external world, while they turn inwards… for solace and escape.-Stanton Peele

But their brains hold no cures. Why do I say that? The New York Times recently ran an article spurred by one man’s massive new private investment in uncovering the brain’s secrets so as to cure mental illness. But the authors of the Times article offer this caution: “Despite decades of costly research, experts have learned virtually nothing about the causes of psychiatric disorders and have developed no truly novel drug treatments in more than a quarter century.” Now that is sobering, isn’t it?

There is a growing sense of the failure of our previous efforts, from Restak and before (remember lobotomies?) through to the present. The most notable such failure came on the heels of the Human Genome Project that occupied the last decade of the twentieth century.

In fact, the HGP decisively laid to rest the idea that there were genes, and even broadly identifiable genetic causes, of mental illness.-Stanton Peele

It was widely hoped – and expected – that the genetic sources for mental illnesses would be identified, leading to cures for them. But that did not happen. In fact, the HGP decisively laid to rest the idea that there were genes, and even broadly identifiable genetic causes, of mental illness. Certainly, no one now looks for a gene (or even a set of genes) labeled, “addiction,” “depression,” “bipolar,” or “schizophrenia.”

What, then, is mental illness? What causes it? How do we improve, change and cure psychiatric conditions?

Mental illness is an insufficiency in coping with one’s environment that can take a variety of forms. It is influenced by the severity of an environment and the challenges it presents, the individual’s ability to cope and sense of self-efficacy, and the person’s social supports and community.

Go ahead and reduce that to brain circuitry, if you wish. Imagine that mental illness and addiction are coded in the person’s nervous system and DNA. So far, for the last 40 years, we are having difficulty locating them there. Perhaps we’ll solve those problems in the next forty years. Or some time in the future.

No we won’t. And we already know enough to be sure that this is so.
Photo Source: wikipedia.org

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rehabs.com. We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • Ricardo_007

    Notions of depression as mental illness cause people to make conclusions about treatment and outcomes that they are not necessarily qualified to make. While the DSM lists depression as a mental illness, I have had doctors tell me that they don’t believe it. They think that depression is matter of choice an is ego based; in many ways, not entirely unlike addictions. The heartfelt emotion of so many of us over Williams’ suicide is based in multiple factors. One is shock. The man had self-determination about the time and method of his death. Far too real for many to settle with. In many ways, anything labelled as a mental illness many think can be treated. Yet when we stand back to observe, we ultimately realize that not everyone wants to be bothered with treatment. Robin Williams was a fine man and entertainer. Some say he left this life too early, yet I might say that he left at the time he chose. Good for you, Robin. I cherish your memory.

  • anonymous usa citizen

    The conditions are skyrocketing because the pharmas are worsening conditions. Mine took long time on meds to realize this. It is too late now to get off of these drugs. They are severely mind altering and change the actual form and workings of a brain -away from the goal of a state of wellness (which can be disputed). Time to realize this is societal. Humans need nature for the healing and nourishment it offers from birth on.
    Eco-psychology and biophilic design-hurry up and figure out how to apply new ways to get this back to humans that are now urban majority, as well as saturated with electronics.

    • Stanton Peele

      This argument is forwarded in a very scary book with far-reaching consequences:

      Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America
      

      by Robert Whitaker

  • ProfessionalOut

    I believe… there is an angle by the mental health, recovery, disease
    movements that harm many, especially by the more vocal or proselytizing
    folks with AA 12 step, Hazelden, and Dr. Drew. I had a hell of a time
    when I felt trapped in AA. I experienced hopelessness, helplessness,
    inability to think clearly, and agitation from feeling bullied and
    brainwashed by these folks. When I left AA and began believing the
    opposite of their dogma, I was ten times more fulfilled. Given that,
    when I heard Robin Williams had just gotten out of Hazelden and had
    reported in 2010 that he went to AA every week, I couldn’t help but
    believe he experienced the same harm from those folks and their dogma
    that I had.

    Unfortunately now, the media and these movements
    declare the culprit alone is a so-called “brain disease” and that more
    treatment or 12 step meetings are the answer. I came to believe that I
    did not have some uncontrollable “disease” swirling unpredictably in my
    mind like they want to lead people to believe. I came to believe that
    controlled drinking techniques helped stop the pattern of abstinence
    with binging so that I can remain mostly abstinent while occasionally
    moderating. I came to believe that I did not need life long treatment or
    12 step meetings in order to supposedly arrest “an incurable disease.”
    I am no longer powerless. I am vulnerable and alone at times, but I am
    not powerless. All this coming from me, someone who can be considered a
    poor American Indian man who was homeless, drunk and high for many
    years during my twenties. Yet, I can not say all are my size. If you do
    not BELIEVE you can drink/use or make it through life without treatment
    or 12 step meetings, then my all means go with what you know. The
    evidences will unfold as they may, but belief may be more meaningful
    than evidence.

    Robin Williams was very special and we will miss him very much.

  • Vespersan

    There has been a Stanton Peele shucking his snake oil treatment cure in every country and every century since addiction began its march through humanity. Buy his advice, stuff, or whatever, and let us know how it worked for you..