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Robin Williams’s Comedic Genius Was Not a Result of Mental Illness, but His Suicide Was

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This blog appears in the In-Depth Report Genius, Suicide and Mental Illness: Insights into a Deep Connection

Of course, the media is writing a lot today about the link between mental illness and creativity in light of Robin Williams’ suicide.

Here’s the thing: Williams’ comedic genius was a result of many factors, including his compassion, playfulness, divergent thinking, imagination, intelligence, affective repertoire, and unique life experiences.

In contrast, his suicide was strongly influenced by his mental illness.

This romanticism of mental illness needs to stop. The media needs to offer accurate views of what it’s like to have a real debilitating mental illness and make a call for more funding to support those who are suffering instead of focusing on cutesy connections to genius that are not even supported in the scientific literature.


The Real Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity

Being Suicidal: What it feels like to want to kill yourself

US Suicide Helpline: 1-800-273-8255 UK: 08457 90 90 90

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rshoff2 12:34 pm 08/12/2014

    Are creative people somehow more inherently susceptible to mental illness (illness being the key word here)? They could be more susceptible either by brain physiology or because they are vulnerable to the social environment by the expression of creativity. Can they really separate their own identity from that of their creative product?

    It’s hard to believe that there is not some, even if only indirect, correlation to the myth and reality about creative genius.

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  2. 2. drafter 12:59 pm 08/12/2014

    Unfortunately there is a lot of social stigma with searching out help and then there is the actual loss of some legal rights thus some will never search for help. The other issue is of course is the brain is extremely complicated and just about every case is different yet many people assume the problems can be resolved with a pill or by claiming “to just get over it”. Often the pill only becomes a mask for the real problem and only makes it worse. This is never an easy problem and like this problem even the research is filled with pitfalls.

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  3. 3. papageno 6:01 pm 08/12/2014

    If you or someone you know is suicidal, *DO NOT* call the U.S. Suicide Helpline. They can track your phone number and they will call the police or local ambulance and have you “302′d”, i.e., transported to and forcibly imprisoned in a locked mental health ward at some local hospital. Most of the psychiatrists at these units are not native English speakers and are incompetent diagnosticians. You will also be responsible for the ambulance and hospitalization cost.

    I am speaking from experience, as my best friend has been through this procedure many times.

    Anyone who is suicidal should call the Samaritans. Most branches are in the UK but there are a few in New England and New York. These people will not 302 you without your permission. If you can do so, talk to the people in the UK as they are gentle and compassionate.

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  4. 4. TerenceIH 11:18 pm 08/12/2014

    I as a simple man living a sheltered life have a problem for which the Dutch locked me up for over a year in a mental home. As a biochemist I look at many problems but one drain my brain. Zero (0); this thing in the middle of two infinities which added together give zero which I feel is not enough.

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  5. 5. judynz 7:02 pm 08/14/2014

    I wish everyone would drop using the definition of Mental Illness. This is a NWO term designed to strip individuals of the ability to see themselves as normal human beings.
    Emotional imbalances can be easily fixed but the term MENTAL ILLNESS makes you believe you are MORE THAN and certainly unable to help yourself.
    Most people suffer emotional imbalances caused by home, school environments, etc. etc. If their path doesn’t offer opportunity to balance these confusions or one becomes fixated on their personal differences to others helped by an intolerant society)the mind can become bogged down and drown out other areas of life, which in itself can help cure their problem. Understanding `As you sow so shall you reap’ can help. It means that every thought is a SEED, planting the seeds & dwelling on them produces A realty. Plant differing seeds and they act as companions to help balance and helps prevent becoming self obsessed.
    The DWELLING/focusing on seeds exclusively is not only feeding & nurturing the seeds to growth, it can distort/balance the process of learning and personal growth. Get off your own backs, get a hobby, practice becoming more honest with yourself and with others and certainly watch out that you might be enjoying the attention. KNOW there are many out there with bigger & more real problems than you and try helping them.
    I hope I have explained this in a manner that will help individuals to help themselves.

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  6. 6. doneck 11:44 pm 08/14/2014

    Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, but it is not considered a mental illness.

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  7. 7. Cali88 12:24 pm 08/15/2014

    I have worked in the field from a statistical background, and there is actually a lot of doubt about the above claim. We don’t know the morbidity of suicide attempts in general because there is lily a massive skew in the statistics due to:

    1) Self inflicted death by gun or hanging are, absent affirmative proof to the contrary, ruled as suicide by MEs and Coroners. Whereas the (sharply increasing) self inflicted opioid overdose deaths are, absent affirmative proof to the contrary, ruled accidental deaths.

    2) There is a wide variation in reporting conventions on a suicide attempt vs a suicide gesture. Suicide gestures are not attempts they are cries for attention with no intent to die, yet most are now ruled as attempts. This is creating a statistical appearance that drug overdose attempts are less effective, but in fact there is work suggesting they be the most effective.

    I have worked with Australian researchers who believe that the statistical drop in suicide since their wide gun confiscation maybe false and masking an overall increase in suicide. The data show that self inflicted opioid overdose increase is quadruple the the decrease in gun suicide.

    On the issue of attempts vs gestures, almost no one is going to gesture with a firearm or hanging, With the former you will have a felony arrest and imprisonment, or risk being shot by police when you have no intent to die, and the later has obvious problems as well for gestures. Taking 10% of a fatal dose of pills, or a superficial cutting of wrists, and calling a relative, friend or suicide hotline IS a gesture with no intent other than attention. Yet a woman doing this is usually statistically classified as a failed attempt, whereas a woman taking a 2x fatal dose of opioids and dying is frequently classified accidental.

    The point is very large number of successful suicides by pharmacological agents are likely undercounted; and there is also a likely over-count of a certain types of attempts by including gestures.

    For this reason, neurologists and psychiatrists hypotheses maybe all or partly wrong since they are not aware of the two severe skews that people familiar with health agency reporting problems know are creating problematic statistics

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  8. 8. evelyn haskins 8:52 pm 08/15/2014


    I never thought of Robin Williams as ‘funny’.

    His lines were given to him by the script writer, and all that was left for him was is rather silly smirk.

    I DID like him as “Mork” — he did a good dork/misfit. But otherwise, no.
    Neither was I amused, at all, by his cheap dig at Kevin Rudd. Like him or not, Rudd is a well groomed well spoken and educated man.

    Maybe his suicide was more to do with no longer getting roles than mental instability?

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  9. 9. DavidJayBrown 5:31 pm 08/17/2014

    This is just plain wrong and scientifically inaccurate, by a long shot! There are strong correlations between mental illness and creativity. Around 35 percent of writers and artists suffer from bipolar disorder. Read Frank Barron’s extensive studies, read Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire, and do more research. There are many studies studies showing a correlation between mental illness– in just about every form–with creativity. Do your research, dude! This article is terribly misleading!

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  10. 10. DavidJayBrown 6:11 pm 08/17/2014

    Also, multi-generaltional studies done in Iceland demonstrated that the same genes that code for mental illness also code for creativity. Dude, do your research before writing for Scientific American. I’m surprised that your editor didn’t catch these clear inaccuracies.

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  11. 11. SJCrum 6:56 pm 08/19/2014

    One enormously important thing about suicide is that when they kill themselves it doesn’t solve their problems at all, or even relieve any depression either. Instead, they still feel ALL of the depression TOTALLY. And, after they are dead it is then far more difficult to handle the problems.

    What people need to know instead is that, even in the worst case possible, there is also a totally loving way to solve them. And, those solutions need to be worked at TOTALLY and SUCCESSFULLY.

    In Robin Williams case, you can bet your bottom dollar that he wasn’t loved. And, fame and fortune can cause that result enormously. On the good side though, real love can fix anything TOTALLY, and then even make the entire world go completely away.

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  12. 12. 7:26 pm 08/19/2014

    I am surprised that this rant is on here, rather than a scholarly discussion. It has long been known that there is a link between creativity and mental illness. There is a reason for the depressed poet/artist stereotype. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are two examples of brilliant poets that committed suicide. We also have Van Gough and Hemingway.

    While mental illness should not be romanticized, it should not be a surprise to anyone that those who feel emotions more intensely than the general public would find creative ways to express that. That is what art is about, expressing your feelings.

    However I went through my “depressed poet” stage with bipolar disorder and although I did write some pretty good stuff I would not want to go there again. The cost was too high. So no, I would not recommend that anyone not get treatment because they are afraid of losing their edge creatively. It isn’t worth it.

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