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What Robin Williams’ Parkinson’s Diagnosis Teaches Us About Depression

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"What Robin Williams’ Parkinson’s Diagnosis Teaches Us About Depression"

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Robin Williams

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

On Thursday, Robin Williams’ wife disclosed that the actor was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease when he took his own life earlier this week. The news helps shed light on a persistent link between chronic illnesses and mental health that plagues millions of Americans.

“Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly,” Susan Schneider said in a statement to the media about her late husband. “It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that affects about one million Americans, can lead to a range of physical and mental symptoms. The condition may cause tremors, impaired posture and balance, muscle stiffness, speech issues, and cognitive impairment. For the beloved actor and comic Robin Williams, the potential changes in his ability to use his voice — something 90 percent of Parkinson’s patients struggle with — may have been particularly difficult to face.

On top of that, mood disorders like anxiety and depression are symptoms of Parkinson’s; the disease may actually cause chemical changes in the brain that make people more likely to suffer from those mental health issues. It can be difficult to diagnose depression in those patients because it displays itself in similar ways as Parkinson’s itself does.

“For people with Parkinson’s, depression is quite common and disabling — and it is the symptom most often overlooked,” the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation notes on its website. “Researchers have found that people with Parkinson’s who were depressed had more trouble with daily activities, and were more likely to begin medication for motor symptoms sooner than those without depressive symptoms.”

Even aside from Parkinson’s particular link to mood disorders, suffering from a catastrophic health event often puts a mental strain on patients. About a third of the people who have heart attacks end up developing some form of depression. As many as 25 percent of cancer patients develop depression, and medical experts say that prevents them from responding as well to treatment. Some studies have found that being diagnosed with an STD can lead to mental health issues. Chronic medical issues like Parkinson’s, which force patients to live with the disease for the rest of their lives, are even more likely to trigger clinical depression. Particularly when a debilitating disease affects a person’s independence, mobility, lifestyle, and sense of self, it can cause a sense of despair.

Although Williams reportedly struggled with depression for years before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it’s possible his condition was worsened by the disease. Mental health experts say that it’s important to remember that depression alone rarely causes suicide. A variety of risk factors — like substance abuse, family history, past suicide attempts, and other mood disorders — are typically in play. About 90 percent of the people who commit suicide have a psychiatric illness that’s going untreated or undertreated.

William’s death has led to an outpouring of grief from his friends, colleagues, and fans across the country. It’s also helped heighten the national consciousness around depression; calls to crisis hotlines have surged, and there’s been an increase in the number of people offering to volunteer as mental health advocates. It could raise the awareness about the link between other health issues and depression, too. Experts say that one of the most effective things doctors can do is simply ask patients suffering from illnesses, “Are you depressed?”

If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

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