Robin Williams’ death rekindles questions about creativity and depression

BY Colleen Shalby  August 12, 2014 at 2:37 PM EDT
Robin Williams teaching a class in a scene from the film 'Dead Poets Society', 1989. (Photo by Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images)

Robin Williams teaches his class in a scene from 1989′s “Dead Poets Society.” Photo by Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images.

Following news of Robin Williams’ suicide — which the Marin County Sheriff’s office confirmed today as the actor’s cause of death — it was immediately clear that the comedy giant’s impact spanned generations. It seemed that anyone who had ever watched one of his films, sat breathless with laughter during one of his comedy routines, or shouted “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and thought of Williams before Whitman, had flocked to Twitter and Facebook to collectively voice their sadness and disbelief.

In the outpouring of messages from fans and celebrities, several shared their own personal stories of depression, and others offered advice. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ tweet struck one of the greatest chords, as it juxtaposed our minds’ carefree wonders against Williams’ battling mind.

Williams is not the only creative genius to have suffered from depression. That much is clear from history.

In June’s Atlantic Monthly, neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason wrote about “The Secrets of the Creative Brain.” For decades, Andreason has spent time with creative minds from Kurt Vonnegut to George Lucas, those who had some connection to melancholy, bipolar disorder or another form of mental illness. Andreason noted that many of those subjects had a shared personality style.

“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do … Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.”

Regardless of these anxieties, those she spoke with associated “their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement.”

Despite the frequency at which mental illness is connected to creativity, “depression” isn’t a term that often finds itself in the mainstream conversation, until it strikes at full force.

Andreason told Judy Woodruff in July that she hopes broader research into the inner workings of creative minds, and a more public conversation about mental illness, will help mitigate the stigma behind the disease.

You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by calling 1-800-273-8255 or visiting their website at suicideprevionlifeline.org.

Judy Woodruff talks with Dr. Nancy Andreason about the connection between strength and vulnerability, and the creative mind.