The media response to the tragic suicide of the gifted actor Robin Williams has included much speculation about a possible connection between his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, or the medicines used to treat it, with the depression that apparently prompted him to take his life.
At the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, we are not privy to the details of his diagnosis, or the prescriptions he may have used to treat it. Nor do we have any information about any other drugs he is rumored to have used, or whether these may have contributed to his depression.
What we do know is that the speculations and purported explanations swirling around the issue have become a serious source of anxiety among individuals and families who are touched by Parkinson’s and have been led to believe that they or their loved ones may be at risk of depression of the kind that afflicted Mr. Williams.
To ease their anxieties, and clarify the situation for us all, it may be helpful if we were to summarize those things we do know about the link between Parkinson’s disease, and the drugs that are used to treat it, and depression.
- First, we do know that depression is frequently a symptom of Parkinson’s. In fact, more than half of people with PD experience some symptoms of depression and anxiety during the course of the disease. And 30 percent of people with PD experience depression before a PD diagnosis.
- Second, there are several medicines that – under the supervision of an experienced physician, typically described as a movement disorders specialist – can ease the depression that may come with PD, usually without significant side-effects on PD symptoms.
- Third, it is true that some drugs commonly prescribed for Parkinson’s disease – most notably the class of drugs known as dopamine agonists – can, in perhaps 10-15 percent of cases, cause impulsive behaviors (e.g., eating, gambling). These behaviors can usually be eased by stopping the medication (slowly, under the care of a doctor) or by switching to a different one. Suicide is not among these behaviors. Sinemet®, the gold-standard PD drug that is used sooner or later by almost all who live with Parkinson’s, can sometimes cause hallucinations, but only at very high doses that are typically prescribed much later in the disease.
- Fourth and most importantly, among the three main classes of PD medications typically prescribed in early PD, there is no evidence of links to suicide.
The take-home message is that for many people, Parkinson’s often involves depression, but this condition, in the right hands, can usually be managed, effectively or completely. As in all areas of medicine, the key is the competence and experience of the doctor.
At PDF, we maintain a roster of more than 500 doctors who are trained and experienced with Parkinson’s disease. We encourage people with PD, with concerns about depression to speak to their doctors, and if they need help finding one, call our HelpLine at (800) 457 6676 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.