Robin Williams’ Death Puts Mental Health & Substance Abuse Issues under Spotlight

co-occurring-disorders-robin-williamsWhile the specific circumstances surrounding Robin Williams’ untimely death may never come to light, this tragic loss is increasing awareness regarding the interrelationship between mental health and substance abuse issues.

Depression, for example, afflicts an estimated 350 million people across the globe according to the World Health Association. Furthermore, since one in three depressed people also suffer from some form of substance abuse or dependence*–more than 120 million people in the world have struggles similar to Williams’. And, to complicate matters even more, adults with substance use disorders are more likely than those without abuse to have serious thoughts of suicide according to SAMSHA.

“Due to the intense psychological distress associated with mental illness accompanied by substance abuse, co-occurring disorders are linked to suicidal ideation and suicide. Feeling a desire for immediate relief from such intense psychological pain can lead to thoughts of suicide as a means to escape the emotional agony,” explains Dr. Greg Tierney, a licensed psychologist and Program Director at Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center in Aurora, Ill.

Having quit alcohol and drugs cold turkey and remaining sober for 20 years, Williams divulged in a Good Morning America interview that an overwhelming sense of fear preceded his relapsed in 2006.

“While it’s not uncommon for feelings like fear, anxiety and loneliness to precede relapse, the feelings associated with relapse itself, like guilt, powerless and shame, only intensify one’s depressive state. The interaction between such experiences cause an individual to feel hopeless and defeated,” says Dr. Tierney.

Historically, substance abuse and mental health issues have been conceptualized and treated separately, initiating a misleading assumption that the issues are isolated. Later, it was believed one issue caused the other.

Presently, a mental health condition, such as major depressive disorder or anxiety, in conjunction with a substance use disorder is called a co-occurring disorder. Hence, today’s integrated treatment premise is that each issue and the interplay of issues are taken into consideration.

In a 2009 New York Times interview, Williams expressed one of his hardest hurdles in life was dealing with the underlying issues related to his addiction. A poignant insight, Williams not only revealed the depths of his emotional hardship, he also reinforced the importance of embracing integrated treatment for complicated medical conditions like co-occurring disorders.

According to research gathered by SAMHSA, combining strategies from the fields of psychiatry and addiction treatment can lower the relapse rate among rehab graduates, reduce the number of suicide attempts and foster long-term abstinence.

“Substance abuse is rooted in avoidance. That’s why Gateway clients with co-occurring mental health issues are exposed to strategies like mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy to address anxiety and impulsivity, improve self-awareness and enhance self-confidence. Successful treatment of co-occurring disorders can help foster the tools and knowledge needed for lasting recovery,” says Dr. Tierney.

Learn More about Co-Occurring Disorders at >


About Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment Centers
Every year Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment helps thousands of adults and teens get their life back on track and gives renewed hope to those who care about them. With 50 years of treatment experience, our specialists take the time to understand of the specific needs of each individual. We then develop a customized treatment plan with recommendations for the most appropriate care based on an individual's substance abuse and mental health history. As the largest provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment in Illinois, Gateway has 11 treatment centers throughout the state. Gateway outpatient and residential substance abuse treatment programs are not one-size fits all, but unique treatment plans that give an individual the highest chance for a successful outcome. With insurance acceptance and a track record of success, Gateway Treatment Centers help thousands of individual’s successfully complete treatment each year, and find the hope they need to live again.

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