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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Here’s What Robin Williams Doesn’t Teach Us About Addiction and Depression


Numerous pundits eagerly tell us that Williams' death underlines the importance of conventional treatment and abstinence. It does no such thing.

13 Substance
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Media commentators have been lining up to tell us that Robin Williams’ death shows how vital it is to seek medical treatment if you’re depressed and to enter recovery if you have substance problems. Yet Robin Williams did both of these things, as I noted last week, and still ended his life. In most areas of medicine, someone’s dying after receiving a treatment is not an impetus for recommending more of that treatment.

Williams’ widow, Susan Schneider, stated on Thursday that his sobriety was “intact” up until his death. But did that do anything to benefit or save him? Shouldn’t we consider alternatives if someone dies after following the standard recommendations?

Dick Cavett weighed in on MSNBC on Saturday (video below) to announce, along with so many others, that the course of depression can’t be influenced by family and friends. But what if that isn’t true? What if your relationships are key to recovery? And what if the disease message actually makes it less likely that you will recover from depression or addiction? One study, conducted by William R. Miller and colleagues, found that a belief in the disease model of alcoholism is a major risk factor for relapse following treatment for alcohol problems. Williams, furthermore, said he quit drugs and alcohol initially because of the impending birth of his son. How do Cavett’s claims square with that fact?

Counter to America’s dominant cultural beliefs, Williams had recovered quite well from his substance issues without treatment for decades. He quit using both alcohol and cocaine on his own—as most addicted people can—in 1984 and reportedly didn’t use either for almost 20 years before starting to drink again in 2003. But he died after he had entered 12-step recovery—having attended a Hazelden treatment program in 2006, and, according to the LA Times, after revisiting a Hazelden program “where people who are living sober can come to touch their 12-step bases” just last month.

Williams does not appear to have been suicidal while he was drinking. It would be more accurate to say that he used alcohol to stave off those feelings, as he himself described. Maybe that was why he didn’t want to quit the second time around. In any case, reported the LA Times, “It was three years until he entered the Hazelden residential rehab in Springbrook, Oregon. It reportedly took a 2006 family intervention to get him there, and in 2010 he said he was still going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly.” (His recovery didn’t save his second marriage, either, and it ended in divorce in 2008.)

It make no sense to argue the value of conventional medical treatment and recovery based on Williams’ case. Given his commitment to abstinent recovery in the years preceding his suicide, with a refresher course at one of the premier treatment centers in the US a month before he died, the professional help he had apparently received for depression for many years and reports he was attending AA up until his death, how can we contend on this basis that these measures are the keys to overcoming addiction and depression?

Let’s at least acknowledge that it’s a non sequitur to use Williams as proof that they are. We’d do better to explore other options. For instance, are there people and times for which continued use of alcohol can be beneficial? In a similar case, William Styron, the author of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, wrote that he became severely depressed after he quit alcohol. Maybe sometimes drinking is the better way to go?

As for medically treating depression, Styron decisively rejected the value of antidepressant drugs in his own case. Could cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on the family nexus of substance problems and depression be more fruitful than approaching these conditions as diseases detached from lived existence? Evidence accumulated by Aaron Beck and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania makes this case.

Doesn’t Robin Williams’ case suggest the value of considering these alternatives? I’d say so. Instead, we simply double down on the same approaches that failed the first time, and congratulate ourselves for doing so.

Stanton Peele is a columnist for Substance.com. He has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His subsequent books include 7 Tools to Beat Addiction, Addiction-Proof Your Child and The Truth About Addiction and Recovery. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. His website is Peele.net.