Spotlight Interview: Robin Williams’ Son, Zak Williams, Speaks Out on the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness

By: Sarah Wesley Wheaton* | Staff Writer

On September 24, Zak Williams, the oldest son of the late Robin Williams, flew to North Carolina to speak at the Evening of Hope about mental illness and the impact it can have those suffering and their family and friends. The Evening of Hope is an event run annually by Foundation of Hope, a 501(c)(3) not-for profit dedicated to raising awareness and finding cures for mental illnesses.

Interviewer, Sarah Wesley Wheaton, poses with Zak Williams

Interviewer, Sarah Wesley Wheaton, poses with Zak Williams

Despite an incredibly trying year, Zak only recently began to speak about mental health issues and improving the lives of people suffering with mental illness.  He does this because “mental illness is not often openly discussed and so many people and their loved ones suffer in silence.  This needs to change.”

Zak, who was standing among the throngs of people gathered to hear him speak about a man who had such a profound impact on us all, was instantly recognizable by his infectious smile.  As I sat down to have dinner with him, I was incredibly nervous.  I have always admired his dad’s films, from the childhood classic Hook to the emotionally raw Good Will Hunting. Every movie his dad made was watched and loved by everyone. Those nerves were misplaced, as soon as I sat he graciously reached out his hand and introduced himself to me.  That warm, willing ability to make people feel comfortable, so like his dad, was readily apparent.

We discussed our favorite childhood video games, compared college experiences, shared information about our favorite places in North Carolina as he had visited here when his dad filmed Patch Adams.  We also spoke about what we want to do and are doing with our lives.  Zak is currently volunteering with inmates at San Quentin, teaching a class in financial literacy to inmates.  He hopes to one day expand this program to prisoners all around the nation, creating an opportunity for prisoners to escape an unfortunate cycle they may have fallen into when they were young.

According to Zak, “service to others is service to the soul and I can’t reiterate enough how spending time helping those in need helped me.”

Zak exemplifies the same caring spirit for which his Dad was so well known.  When Robin Williams made films he had “a requirement that for every single event or film he did, the company hiring him also had to hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work.”  Zak was one of the first people during the night to make a personal donation to support the cause and to lead others to donate and help raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Zak is heartbreakingly aware of the harm that the stigma around mental illness causes.  He calls the stigma “cruel” and feels that “many of those among us do not even seek the help they so desperately need because of the stigma.  The urgency of this message cannot be understated.”

Why is this stigma so pervasive in our modern society? NAMI recently addressed this issue in a study, citing the media as a major player in promoting this stigma: “myths and misconceptions about [mental illness] are continually reinforced by stereotypical and often destructive media images — for example, people with schizophrenia are almost exclusively depicted as violent, and inaccurately and quite pervasively characterized as having a “split personality.””  These widely-believed assumptions and inaccurate portrayals of mental illness keep those suffering from admitting their illness to others when hope, help, and recovery is possible.

From a purely business perspective, mental illness and substance abuse annually cost employers an estimated $80 to $100 billion in indirect costs alone. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 41 million, about 20 percent of our population, 1 in 5 people suffer from some form of mental illness.  The good news is that treatment works. The majority (65% to 80%) of individuals with mental illness will improve with appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing monitoring.  Even though treatments work, employees fear seeking out treatment because of the stigma of being labeled with a mental illness.

Improving the lives of people with mental health issues is good for business. When employees receive effective treatment for mental illnesses, the result is lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs.

Zak believes his dad would have been proud of him for speaking out and fighting the stigma.  According to Zak, his dad “despite his own anguish and struggles, endeavored to bring light and laughter where there was despair and pain, and it’s his inspiring attitude that fills me with pride every day.”

*Sarah Wesley Wheaton would like to thank Zak Williams for all he did to help the Foundation of Hope and for taking the time to speak to her.  She encourages anyone who suffers from mental illness, or who has family and friends that do to engage in an open, accepting discourse to better understand the truth of their illness.  Compassion and support, and understanding are key to helping those we love seek treatment.