Death of Robin Williams shines spotlight on Parkinson’s and depression

depressionThe suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams last month and the subsequent revelation that he was newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease gave rise to a flurry of rumour, speculation and confusion about the relationship between Parkinson’s and depression. Parkinson Society Canada and our regional partners responded to many calls from media, individuals living with Parkinson’s and their family members.

The reality is that depression is one of the known non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease; as many as 50 per cent of people with Parkinson’s experience the symptoms of clinical depression at some stage of the disease. Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness, in addition to others’ perceptions of Parkinson’s disease, and lack of information about the connection between depression and this neurological disease, keeps many people from seeking and receiving help for their physical and mental symptoms.

Bill Rea of Orangeville, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease for four years, and until now had shared this knowledge only with family and close friends, wrote to us about his reaction to the death of Williams. He mentioned to his wife that it was a shame that Williams had not lived to help raise awareness and funds for Parkinson’s research. “Yes, Robin could have done a lot to increase awareness and raise funds for PD research…” he wrote. “But I can too.” Since that self-revelation, Bill has given up his preoccupation with keeping his diagnosis a secret and this year organized a Parkinson SuperWalk team called Captain Kawagama in Orangeville.

Although living with Parkinson’s presents its challenges, and the diagnosis can be frightening at first, depression in people with Parkinson’s may be caused by the chemical and physical changes in the area of the brain that affect mood, as well as movement. In fact, depression may be an early symptom of the disease, with some people experiencing depression up to a decade or more before experiencing any motor symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Bill too experienced a bout of depression after learning of his diagnosis in his mid-forties. “I was at home taking prescription anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and watching marathon sessions of Cake Boss.” Bill did emerge from his depression with the loving support of his family and friends, as well as the information and support he received from Parkinson Society Canada, his doctors and his pharmacist.

Depression can be one of the most disabling symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. And, it is important to know there are effective treatments. As much as possible, remain socially engaged and physically active. Resist the urge to isolate yourself. For information on PD support services in your community, call our toll-free Information and Referral line at 1-800-565-3000 or find a regional office near you.

Seek medical help to manage the symptoms as soon as you notice them. You may want to consult a psychologist and there are medications that help relieve depression in people with Parkinson’s. For more information on PD and depression, refer to pages 28-29 of Dr. Ronald Postuma’s A Guide to the Non-Motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease for patients.(link to Patient Guide, pages 29-30.)

You may also want to recommend to your health care professional the Canadian Guidelines on Parkinson’s Disease and related resources at

Seek out the emotional, physical and psychological supports that are right for you as you live your life with Parkinson’s disease. As Bill says, “for now I choose to live my life and not let it [Parkinson’s disease] control me… for now I choose to enjoy life to the extent that I can and take things one day at a time.”