fisher king

Mourning Robin Williams and the Impact of Mental Illness 

Robin Williams in the 1991 film, The Fisher King.

Robin Williams has died. He is presumed to have taken his own life.

The man who made us laugh until we hurt with his outrageous characters Daniel Hillard/Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfireand Armand Goldman in Birdcage, also made us cry with his portrayal of therapist Dr. Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, and with his depiction of an inspiring English professor with a student who commits suicide in Dead Poet’s Society.

What does the death of Robin Williams have to do with preventing and ending homelessness?  More than you might think.

I have been a huge Robin Williams fan since “meeting” him as the space alien Mork in the sitcom Happy Days. I never missed one of his movies and seldom missed an opportunity to see him being interviewed on talk shows, though the interviewer was usually in control of the segment for only a few seconds until the genius of Robin Williams took over. It seemed this brilliant man never had middle ground; he was either the funniest person on the planet or the most heart wrenching character in a movie, but he was never just average. Robin Williams was never normal – whatever that is. Robin Williams had a diagnosis of  Bipolar Disorder, a mental illness that people used to call Manic Depressive. He had periods of the highest highs (the mania) and then he had periods of the lowest lows (the depression). He struggled with substance abuse, and from this layman’s viewpoint, that substance use was probably an attempt to self-medicate, an attempt to quiet the demons that mercilessly drove him.

Many of our citizens experiencing homelessness have a mental illness, but few of them grew up in wealth as Robin Williams did. Not many of them have the opportunity to channel their illness into creative greatness honed by several years of study at Julliard like Robin Williams. Few of them have the mandatory medical and psychological care available that will identify the appropriate combination of medicine and therapy to control the extremes of their disorder. Many have alienated (because of their illness) the systems of friends and family vital to their support when they are cycling through the outer limits of emotion. Our citizens can become homeless when they can no longer maintain a home and lack an adequate support system, often because of the ravages of mental illness. Robin Williams simply acted the part of Parry, a mentally ill homeless man in The Fisher King. However, Williams’ portrayal of homelessness must have been spot-on since the 1991 role earned him a Best Actor nomination.

Robin Williams plays Parry, a man experiencing homelessness and living with a severe mental illness, in The Fisher King.  In this scene, Parry tells the mythology of the Fisher King — a relevant story that can be applied to acknowledging the suffering experienced with mental illness and the healing that can happen with adequate support and care from others.

Because of the death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the internet is full of “information” about Mr. Williams: his professed addiction, his acknowledged mental illness, and speculations about both his life and his death. For reliable information on mental illness, you can research The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and read their publications on Bipolar Disorder and on SuicideScholarly articles on the link between Mental Illness and Homelessness have been available for many years; we know that at least 30% of our people who live in bus stations, in sewer tunnels, in camps in the woods and in other places unfit for human habitation suffer from a severe mental illness.  If we know about this link, why aren’t we doing more about it?  The AL.com post from this morning is just one short thought on Mental Illness, Homelessness and State funding of Mental Health services.

Robin Williams is far from being the only celebrity with Bipolar Disorder; some of the more creative ones include Russell Brand, Kurt Cobain, Carrie Fisher, Larry Flynt, Jesse Jackson Jr., Jackson Pollock, Charley Pride, Robert Schumann, Frank Sinatra, Sidney Sheldon, Britnay Spears, Amy Winehouse and Virginia Woolf. I could also name many of the street homeless with Bipolar Disorder, and you would know their faces, but you would never know their names because, to most people, the street people don’t have names. Turns out that mental illness really doesn’t care if you have money and fame  and an Academy Award or if you have nothing, live under an overpass and your unkempt face is known only as “that lazy bum:”  suicide takes everyone.

For a person who struggles with mental illness, their condition deserves to be treated seriously and with respect and compassion — by their closest friends and family, their neighbors, their communities, and their health care professionals.  That support, from every side, is priceless and can mean the difference between a life of fulfilled potential and personal growth or a life of suffering, estrangement, fear, and, unfortunately, suicide.   Sometimes that support can mean the difference between a life in housing and a life in homelessness.  In our community, agencies like UAB REACT and JBS Mental Health, among many of our other agencies that provide emergency services to people in need, these service providers become the support system for seriously mentally ill individuals who have no one else.

I mourn the loss of Robin Williams and I mourn each of the 423 severely mentally ill people experiencing homelessness who also call our community home.

This blog post was written by Michelle Farley, Executive Director of One Roof. 

For support, please remember that anyone experiencing suicidal ideation or emotional distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or our local crisis line.

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