Robin Williams, a complex and humane Baby Boomer man

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He was wealthy, internationally acclaimed, and creatively prolific, a baby boomer celebrity who set many acting benchmarks. Then at age 63 he killed himself by hanging. Brent Green of Denver, who is a nationally-acclaimed expert on baby boomers, tries to understand why.

Robin Williams, a beloved comic genius, earned many accolades including an Academy Award, three Grammys, and five Golden Globes. His acting ranged from an endearing extraterrestrial in the 1970’s hit television sit-com Mork & Mindy to an Oscar-winning performance as Dr. Sean McGuire, a circumspect psychotherapist in Good Will Hunting.

Depression has been the most popular explanation for Williams’ suicide. Depression is a brain disease, a biochemical misalignment, a mood disorder. It has been described as a dark tunnel, a state of aching sadness in which the afflicted person can no longer see liberating possibilities for brighter, happier days.

In his real life, Robin Williams loved bicycling with friends in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Here, he participates in a ride to benefit the reduced tuition program for underprivileged kids at the Marin Country Day School. (Photo by Bob Cullinan, Robin's cycling friend.  www.cullinan.to)

In his real life, Robin Williams loved bicycling with friends in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Here, he participates in a ride to benefit the reduced tuition program for underprivileged kids at the Marin Country Day School.
(Photo by Bob Cullinan, Robin’s cycling friend. www.cullinan.to)

And while this explanation renders the loss of such a magnetic personality less mystifying, a psychological disorder might not fully contain self-destruction of this magnitude. Though he must have been depressed and felt isolated, what other psychic nightmares haunted him? What was Robin Williams thinking and feeling in the months, days, and hours before he hanged himself?

It behooves suicide experts to look beyond brain chemistry. Perhaps Williams, like other male peers, might have finally reached a point of no return because of the socio-cultural context in which he lived. That includes his generational affiliation and status as a post-sixty male.

Williams was born in 1951 and thus a member of our generation. He grew up in times of ebullient optimism, a post-World War era of unbounded possibilities. During his two years at the prestigious Julliard School, he must have sensed the seismic power of his huge generation, a collective consciousness that bowled through the prejudices and predictabilities of older generations. So is it a leap to conclude that Williams, like millions of his peers, had enormous expectations?

Brent Green, well-known expert on the baby boomer generation.

Brent Green, well-known expert on the baby boomer generation.

In a pivotal book entitled Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, author Landon Y. Jones, formerly managing editor of People magazine, coined the label “baby boomers” and helped propel us toward the focal point of American culture. One popular narrative goes something like this: Boomers were given unprecedented abundance by the tireless, self-sacrificing GI Generation. Boomers can expect great things to happen throughout life: stellar education, brilliant careers, economic security, satisfying soul mates, and material acquisitions that ameliorate occasional setbacks.

Unmet dreams early in life can foment pessimistic assessments later. Recent research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald confirms that the proverbial mid-life crisis— the least happy time of life— arrives between 45 and 65, with males skewing older. Further, the business of “life review” is relative. A dazzling career and enviable status to most observers might seem doggedly unsatisfying to an actor on the implacable stage of reality.

Higher than any other age group, suicide rates for Boomers rose 40-percent from 1999 through 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams was far from alone in his decision to self-terminate.

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Robin Williams
Photo by Bob Cullinan – www.cullinan.to

Yet, we are left wondering which of Williams’ own great expectations remained unmet. What might he have wished for that he had not achieved? Confidence in a future as luminous as his past? Freedom from addiction? Self-acceptance? Anonymity?

Added to the burden of oversized generational hopefulness could have been the weight of maleness. Son of a GI Generation father, Williams might have also learned that a man is what he does, not necessarily who he is. A man is a doctor, engineer, pastor, actor. Maleness is concrete, specific, and unwavering toward the goal of external achievement. And for some, the goalpost never stops moving farther downfield.

Even for those who choose the explanation that depression is the culprit, there may be another possibility: andropause or “male menopause.” Some authorities believe that reduction of the male hormone testosterone in middle-aged men can trigger depression and suicidal tendencies.

Robin-Williams-as-Mork

Robin Williams in the 1970s as the alien Mork in the TV program Mork and Mindy.

According to Jed Diamond, Ph.D., author of Male Menopause and Irritable Male Syndrome, andropause is a hormonal change in middle-aged men that has potentially devastating physical, psychological, interpersonal, social, sexual, and spiritual aspects. With these changes sometimes come insurmountable challenges of coming to terms with aging, and statistics confirm the perilous consequences of growing old.

“There is a silent health crisis,” observes Dr. Diamond, “with males living sicker than females and dying from fourteen of the top fifteen leading causes of death at rates higher than those for women.” Eighty-percent of all suicides in the U.S. are men. The male suicide rate at midlife is three times higherthan the rate for women. As men pass 65, the suicide rate accelerates like a speeding bullet to seven times higher.

In his portrayal of John Keating, the beloved English teacher in Dead Poets Society, Williams stood on a desk and asked his students why he would do this. To feel taller? No.

“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

He was a resounding voice of a generation. He won acclaim for his abilities to interpret the human condition in ways that made us laugh at ourselves. And so we are left questioning when he stopped seeing things in a different way, whether blinded by the tunnel of depression or great expectations dashed bysobering maturity. Or from being a man growing older, another Boomer male suffering an aching sigh of diminishing self-worth.

Special thanks to Bob Cullinan (www.cullinan.to) for his cycling photo of Robin Williams.

3 Comments

  1. Trying to understand the tragedy of suicide is never easy. When its someone close to us, we desperately want to make sense of the death. We wonder, could it happen to me or someone I love? Thank you Brent for stretching our vision beyond the individual level to look more broadly at why our generation are more susceptible to the despair that can lead to suicide, and why men over 60 are at particularly high risk.

    1. This all became clearer to me, Jed, because of your pioneering thought leadership and advocacy for men at midlife and beyond. I couldn’t have written this article without having also read your books and participated in your Grand Rounds seminar series last summer. Thanks, my friend.

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