Robin Williams' Death: Reflections On Bipolar Disorder

First Posted: Aug 11, 2015 02:44 PM EDT

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unforgettable actor and comedian's death, Robin Williams.

The 63-year-old icon had been suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's and Lewy body dementia (LBD) when he committed suicide in his Northern California home by hanging. For those who knew him closely, Williams also struggled with other demons, including severe depression and anxiety.

Since his passing, many commentators further examined Williams' long-suspected bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness that's associated with mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. Though medically manageable, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance estimate that as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder will complete suicide.

Yet was there a link between Williams' bipolar disorder that enhanced his creativity? This has generated discussion surrounding certain affective disorders--particularly bipolar disorder.

Creativity and Bipolar Disorder

In 2005, researchers at Oregon State University examined the occupational status of a large group of typical patients and found that "those with bipolar illness appear to be disproportionately concentrated in the most creative occupational category." Furthermore, the researchers also discovered that patients with bipolar disorder were more likely to engage in creative activities for a job than those without the disorder.

Though this certainly can't be said of everyone suffering from bipolar disorder, it can be said of Williams', whose career began as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco in the mid-1940s. His film debut started when he starred in the musical comedy Popeye, in what would be the beginning of a long acting career. And perhaps one of the most striking films following Williams' death was the 1991 film by director Terry Gilliam, The Fisher King. Williams' plays an emotionally damaged homeless man who is haunted by a hallucinatory vision of the Red Knight.

Gilliam, who re-watched the film just after Williams' death, noted how striking his acting was in relation to Williams' illness. "I didn't have to push him because he believed that was true. He knew the darker side and what it means to have demons," said Gilliam, via The Guardian.

Other celebrities now living with the health issue include Jim Carry, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ben Stiller and Richard Dreyfuss, according to Communities Digital News

Bipolar Disorder, The Brain and Genetics

Though there is still much to learn about mental illness, including bipolar disorder, health officials are continuing to find out more connective elements that link to its origination. Some experts believe that bipolar disorder may be caused, in part, by an underlying problem specific to brain circuits and the balance of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Three brain chemicals specifically involved--noradrenaline (norepinephrine), serotonin, and dopamine--are involved in both brain and bodily functions, and noradrenaline and serotonin are consistently seen in those with psychiatric mood disorders such as depression and biopolar disorder. Dopamine, which is linked to the pleasure system of the brain, is sometimes disrupted in those with severe mental disorders, which can result in distortions in reality and illogical thought patterns and behaviors. And serotonin, which is connected to wakefulness, eating, sleep, learning, impulsivity, etc., may also function abnormally in those with mood disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health

Some research has also revealed that those with bipolar disorder have unusual brain anatomy, resulting in diminished frontal regulation of subcortical affective systems that involve both the amygdala and striatum, which may increase compulsive behaviors.

Symptoms and Linked Illnesses

Symptoms are not always cut and dry, but can range from overly joyful or excited periods, known as manic periods, extremely sad or hopeless states, called depressive episodes, as well as extreme changes in energy, activity, sleep and behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Research has also shown a genetic link, with bipolar disorder running in families. However, this is not always the case. 

There are typically four main types of bipolar disorder, including Bipolar I Disorder; Bipolar II Disorder; Bipolar Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (BP-NOS) and Cyclothymic Disorder, or Cyclothymia, with a rare form of the disorder being Rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar disorder typically lasts a lifetime and is not always easy to diagnose, with the health issue typically appearly around the late teens or early adulthood.

Certain other illnesses may also exist with bipolar disorder, including various anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social phobia. Bipolar disorder can co-occur with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well, which has some symptoms that overlap with the illness, such as restlessness and being easily distracted.


There are fortunately many treatments for bipolar disorder, including medications, such as mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, antidepressants, psychotherapy and other alternatives that may be of assistance.

If you or someone you know may have severe depression or bipolar disorder, talk with your doctor about what's right for you.

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