The Decline Of Robin Williams And The Dangers Of Burnout

This tragedy can help the public understand the prevalence and dangers of burnout.


"(Comedy is) a brutal field, man. They burn out. It takes its toll." —Robin Williams

Prior to his suicide it had been reported that Robin Williams had begun sleeping in his darkened bedroom for up to 18 hours. Those who love Robin Williams have suggested that his withdrawal from family and friends and his untimely, horrific death can be used to draw attention to the depletion that depression brings, as well as to renew efforts to provide relief for those suffering from it.


I hope that this tragedy can also call attention to burnout, a potentially dangerous emotional state that can impact on anyone in a highly pressured personal or professional environment. It is far more common than most realize.

As we learned about the life and death of this enormously talented and brilliant artist, two things became clear. Williams' comedic genius and acting (as well as his addictions) were an attempt to escape deep depression that haunted him throughout his life. It is documented that Williams, from an affluent and privileged Chicago family, feared his father and used humor to make his mother laugh so that she would spend time with him. 


Further, perhaps Williams' descent into burnout was part and parcel of his decent into depression. From what has been reported, his psychological tipping point was the combination of the cancellation of his CBS series The Crazy Ones after the first year and the early stages of Parkinson's.

Depression and burnout are separate mental health conditions, which can and do exist separately.  But they often go hand in hand, one exacerbating the seriousness of the other.

Depression is an exceeding relentless, complex illness, brought on through genetic, biochemical and psychosocial factors.  With the tincture of time and patience, depression can be treated effectively by discovering and combining the correct therapeutic approaches for each individual.

Burnout is a condition, however, that is more centered on the here and now and can be more easily understood and addressed. "Burnout" as a term was first applied in 1975 by H.J. Freudenberger in his text book Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice to describe a progressive state of psychological inoperability which can take differing forms, from simple rigidity, "in which the person becomes 'closed' to any input," to increased resignation, irritability and quickness to anger.       


No one is immune to the onset of burnout, which has two primary causes. One is "compassion fatigue," where for long periods it is necessary to show warmth, understanding, patience and equilibrium in difficult and draining situations, personal or professional settings.  The second is "vicarious trauma," (also known by the closely related term " secondary traumatic stress"), where one is faced with another's trauma, which triggers the immediate re-experiencing of painful occasions from one's personal history or the personal history of loved ones.

I became interested in burn-out because of the high percentage of drop out in my field of those trained, skilled and devoted to the care and healing of our most vulnerable populations.  Colleague after colleague would tell me a variation of the following: "I could not take the pressure any longer...the high caseloads, the lack of necessary funding for programs, public apathy...I became completely, utterly immobilized."

During my first year of graduate school at Catholic University in the mid 1960s, I attended a workshop for therapists that would prove to have prophetic relevance to the  tragedy of Williams' suicide as well as to burnout, although at the time the disorder had not been recognized. Sponsored by the University's superb Drama Department, the gathering was highlighted by the presence of the late actor Helen Hays, who spoke candidly about the perils of acting. To paraphrase: "Actors express conflicts on stage and can delude ourselves into thinking we have found true release—that is until we leave the stage, go home, and face the real world."  And further: "On stage an actor must live the pain of his character, as well as find compassion for severe limitations. But to take the character home can destroy lives. Above all, an actor must not use work to hide from himself."

Friends who described Williams' devastating lows shared that it was extremely difficult to find the real Robin, for he was always performing, always "on"—always in pursuit of professional opportunities (as well as generous philanthropic involvements) which provided outlets and cover for his pain. Williams recounted the story that while reading the whole C.S. Lewis series out loud to his kids, his daughter, Zelda, told him: "Don't do any voices. Just do it yourself." Writer director, Andrew Bergman explained that he gravitated toward projects that "would allow him to go a little nuts, which he liked to do."  Director Gary Marshall recalled asking Williams, "Do you think we will ever grow up?" The response came quickly: "I'm afraid if I ever grow up, I won't be able to make a living."


It is a balanced life, one where we know who we are and who we are not, that helps us all deal with what life asks of us and be far less susceptible to burn-out.  A life with opportunities for physical and sexual outlets, spiritual growth, authentic, mature connection, and time for rest and thought, is the best possible protection from depletion caused by the psychological storms and grave disappointments that can enter any life, including the despair brought on by depression. It also provides the best possible road toward growing up.

SaraKay Smullens' guide book on understanding burnout and the necessity of self care will be published by NASW-Press in 2015.