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Link Between Humor And Grief Raises Awareness Of Depression Following Comedian Robin Williams' Death

(CBS SF) -- The death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams is bringing attention to the issue of depression.

Robin Williams, 63, battled with the illness and substance abuse for years, along with other comedians like Freddie James Prinze, Jonathon Winters and Richard Pryor.

Dr. Steven Sultanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, is an expert on the links between humor, depression and psychology. He spoke with KCBS over the phone Tuesday morning.

"People who are depressed come from a sense of being unlovable and unacceptable," Sultanoff said. "And what comedians may be doing is using humor to become acceptable. The use of humor makes people like them and they're trying to fulfill this emptiness inside of them."

Many people may also become comedians to ease their pain, he said.

"We know that the stressing emotions such as depression, anger and anxiety cannot exist at the same time when one is experiencing humor and experiences of mirth of humor," Sultanoff said. "So in the moment of experiencing mirth, the other distressing emotions such as depression dissolves," adding that "Someone like Robin Williams used a lot of humor to add perspective onto his life to mange the challenges of the world through perspective."


Los Angeles Laugh Factory club owner Jamie Masada recognized the need to support comedians' mental health. Two nights a week, he organizes meetings between comics and psychologists in a private office upstairs where they can discuss their problems while lying on a therapy couch formerly owned by Groucho Marx.

"Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy," Masada told Slate in an interview. "They didn't get enough love. They have to overcome their problems by making people laugh."

The marquee above the famed venue on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard read "Robin Williams Rest In Peace Make God Laugh" on Monday night.

KPIX News Photographer Dean Kendrick from KPIX shared his recent experience with Williams.

"I could tell that he was trying to offer support, but he really, really needed support at that time," Kendrick said. "He was one of the very first to raise his hand and open his self to vulnerability to anyone about his own personal situation."

Over 36,600 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2010, while nearly 5,000 more — nearly 38,400 — died by suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are some of the warning signs of suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun.
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7 or locally, go to or call (415) 781-0500.

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