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Robin Williams made us laugh.
As Mrs. Doubtfire, as Mork, as Aladdin.
But his more serious roles—in movies such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society”—may have revealed more about the late actor than his comedy.
“There was a part of him the world didn’t see,” says his oldest son Zak Williams, 32, in Raleigh Sept. 24 to speak about mental health at the Foundation of Hope’s annual fundraiser at the Angus Barn.
“They might have seen it in certain films, but he was a tremendously thoughtful person who not only cared deeply for other people but was very passionate about science and technology. Albert Einstein was his role model. His good friend, Oliver Sacks, who recently passed away, was someone who deeply inspired him.”
Robin Williams was found dead in August of last year; an autopsy indicated he’d committed suicide in his home. In fact, Williams had struggled for years with depression and other mental health issues, says Zak.
“We knew he was struggling through things, and we wanted to be there for him as much as we could. But…one core consideration is that you need to help people who want to be helped. There were times when he needed us and times when he didn’t. Sometimes people don’t want to talk about it, and that’s really challenging.”
Zak Williams isn’t an actor or a celebrity. He’s an entrepreneur and marketing strategist in San Francisco who also volunteers at San Quentin, teaching financial literacy to inmates.
He’s not looking for the limelight, but bringing awareness to mental health is important to him. He hopes to inspire change both in policy and available resources.
He and his siblings—Zelda, 26; and Cody, 23—are still coping with losing their father.
“It was traumatizing,” says Zak. “We’re working hard to cope. It’s a process. Every day needs to be taken day by day.”
How the U.S. handles mental illness frustrates him.
“As a movement, we don’t stand anywhere nationally. There’s still a stigma associated with mental illness—that having mental illness is a deficiency.”
“Everyone is on the spectrum,” he continues. “We all feel depressed at times. We all feel anxiety. One in four people suffers from some form of mental illness that is an impairment to their life. So that’s a big deal. That basically relates to practically every family in America.”
Even famous families.
“The memories I treasure most are the quiet times, the reflective times that we spent together, because he was a very thoughtful person. He loved to entertain, but the quality time reflected a deeper sense of my understanding of him—through the good times and the bad.”
What could we be doing better on the mental health front?
“High school and through college can be a very isolating time for people. You feel at odds with your peers, with your parents and family. My concern is, especially if you’re talking about mental illnesses that manifest themselves in late high school, college and even up to young adulthood, that’s a really difficult time to go through because it’s a period of transition. Providing better resources at that level is a really important area.”
What surprised you most about getting through the past year?
“The resilience of the mind and the tremendous support and love people were willing to give to help.”
What do you wish the world had known about your dad?
“He cared so much about each and every person. That love was just all pervasive.”
On Robin Williams…
As a father: “Dad was absolutely fun behind the scenes—on screen and off screen. He wasn’t strict. He always wanted me to be a kind person and was really supportive and really jazzed about anything I wanted to do.”
Cool hobbies: He was a major collector of toys; he loved collecting Japanese comic books.
On closing Dorothea Dix:
“That breaks my heart to hear because we have a similar issue in San Francisco—people with mental illness being let out into the street.”
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