I have written eulogies for Psychiatric Times for well-known and not-so-well-known psychiatrists. For the Hastings Center, a national medical ethics think-tank, I even wrote a eulogy about myself for their “Over 65” section.1
A colleague suggested I should try to write a eulogy on the beloved Robin Williams, who reportedly just died of suicide. Why try to do this eulogy? I’m a psychiatrist, not a member of the clergy. I’m not even a great lover of movies or most comedians.
One reason is that so much of the media coverage has centered on reports about his chronic depression and intermittent substance abuse. However, I don’t want to speculate too much about that, as it could approach the “wild analysis” that Freud warned us about long ago.
Moreover, such speculation on the part of a psychiatrist can cross an ethical boundary, as exemplified in the “Goldwater Rule.” This ethical rule stems from inappropriate comments about the presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. In 1964, FACT Magazine published an article titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater.” Many psychiatrists wrote that he was unfit to be President of the US. The annotated rule of the American Psychiatric Association stated:
“On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion on an individual who is in the light of public attention . . . However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”2
What I only can do, then, is to offer a personal opinion on some of his life work and roles, and an appreciation of his performance genius, especially as it relates to the field of psychiatry.
On the way to Vietnam a couple of years ago, for the first time I watched the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam. In his role as an edgy DJ, Williams opened with the exclamation “Good morning, Vietnam!” It seemed to be an expression of hopefulness for a good day in the midst of trauma and tragedy. As an example, note the song he played of Martha and the Vandellas, “Nowhere to Run.” From the actual war in Vietnam, we unfortunately learned enough about PTSD for it to become an official disorder in DSM, only to be reminded of the same outcomes once again in our current wars against terrorism.
In his comic roles, Williams provided some temporary relief for the everyday grief in life. Freud posited laughter as one of our two most helpful defense mechanisms, along with the sublimation of helping others.
Ironically, Williams played a serious role that exemplified psychiatry at its best, which is all too rare in movies. In his role as an empathic and persistently available therapist, he helped a young man to recover from his childhood trauma. For his role in Good Will Hunting, he received an Academy Award in 1997.
If only Mr Williams’ treatment was as successful as what he provided in the movie. It grieves me that we clinicians fall short for so many different reasons. Perhaps the death of Mr Williams will spur us to do even better.
While we still have our good mornings—whether in Vietnam or elsewhere—we must forever say good night to Robin Williams and to thank him for all the good times.
Let’s keep him alive in our minds and hearts as we continue to view him in his multiple roles, whether that be in the psychiatrically relevant Good Morning, Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, or in so many other films—even if that “enjoyment” now comes with unintended tears.
1. Moffic HS. Writing your own eulogy. The Hastings Center. March 17, 2014. http://www.over65.thehastingscenter.org/writing-your-own-eulogy. Accessed August 13, 2014.
2. Hales RE, Yudofsky SC, Roberts LW, eds. The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, Sixth Edition. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2014.