suicide is a tragedy that broke the hearts of his family and friends
and an entire nation. But with the stunning revelation that the famous
comedian had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, the actor's death is particularly hard felt in the Parkinson's community.
the first few days after Williams' widow revealed the comedian's
diagnosis, my email inbox began filling up with notes from patients and
their concerned family members expressing dismay and fear.
someone of Robin Williams' stature could be made so despondent by the
diagnosis as to commit suicide, how could the average Parkinson's
patient possibly be expected to cope?
As one patient wrote me, "Hearing this makes me feel hopeless."
have been telling my patients at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute that
while there is a link between depression and Parkinson's disease, the
situation they are reading about in the papers is unique.
not Williams' physician, but I believe we're dealing with different
demons. The actor had had a well-documented history of depression and
addiction and had strongly been associated with bipolar disorder. It is
more likely this history, and not Parkinson's disease, that played a
part in Williams' tragedy.
Because Parkinson's disease involves
the death or impairment of nerve cells in the brain that produce
dopamine, a mood stabilizer, people will often suffer from depression or
anxiety for years before receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson's. But the
type of depression typically experienced tends to affect a person's
motivation, sleep patterns, weight management and energy level. Rarely
does it inspire suicidal ideation.
That said, it is still
difficult to face a diagnosis, and a good support system of family,
friends, physicians, movement specialists, psychologists and
psychiatrists is necessary to help a person cope, manage and thrive.
is why at Hoag Hospital, we approach the disease comprehensively –
offering not only top-rated neurologists, but also physical, speech and
occupational therapists, mental health and social work specialists to
help patients maintain a good quality of life.
There are many
misconceptions about the disease. Parkinson's is a disorder of tremors,
stiffness, slowness and motor control, but too many people confuse it
with Alzheimer's or dementia. Also, contrary to what too many believe, the disease is not life-threatening.
of my patients live full and active lives. Thanks to innovations in
medicine and physical therapy, some of my patients are so active and
mobile you would never guess they have the disease.
One of my
patients, in fact, said that thanks to his current medication and
treatment plan, that include better sleep hygiene, physical therapy and
addressing his mood, his golf swing and score post-diagnosis is actually
better now than it had been in 20 years.
Another important point I
hope people with Parkinson's disease and their loved ones bear in mind
is that Williams was an individual, not an emblem of any of the diseases
or disorders he may have had. Depression and suicide involve many
factors, and no one should assume that they are at greater risk for
suicide because they share any one trait with the actor.
people with Parkinson's disease, life can be just as fulfilling as it
can be for anybody else. We're in a revolutionary stage in
neurosciences, with a great horizon of therapies, including medications
that buffer the effects of the disease, ahead of us.
Williams' death is terrible, but it shouldn't spell doom to people with
Parkinson's disease. For them, as for the rest of us left grappling with
this tragedy, there still exists hope.
Dr. Sandeep Thakkar is a movement disorders specialist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Program.
This column was also featured in the Daily Pilot.