SAN FRANCISCO -- May is Mental Health Awareness Month and right now, during the coronavirus pandemic, it's a topic that in some way affects everyone. We spoke exclusively with Zak Williams, Robin Williams' son, about how he has overcome his own mental health challenges and is now working to help others.
"I have hand sanitizer. I wonder if I could use that as gel," Zak joked as he tried to fix his hair before the interview. "A reverse cowlick!"
A little shelter-in-place haircut humor to kick off the conversation with the oldest child of legendary actor and comedian, Robin Williams.
"Lavender spray... I have scissors here, too! There we go," exclaimed Zak as he finally tamed his hair.
Comedic relief, important as ever, as people around the world wade through not just a viral pandemic, but a surging mental health crisis.
"We're experiencing a parallel pandemic," said Zak. "The coronavirus pandemic actually exaggerates existing issues. It can cause people to feel more isolated and it can cause people to potentially self-medicate more or engage in addictive behavior to support themselves through difficult times."
Zak grew up in San Francisco. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a mental health advocate.
"I needed to heal and recover myself," he said.
His struggles began after his father died by suicide at home in Marin in 2014.
"My becoming a mental health advocate stemmed from the trauma and loss I experienced after my Dad died by suicide," he said. "I experienced a serious low point in my life. I felt completely emotionally dis-regulated and was experiencing PTSD. I was self-medicating to the point where I wanted to not feel anything. I found that the most healing experience for me was committing to service around causes."
Zak is on the board of Bring Change to Mind, a nonprofit founded by Glenn Close, that works to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. He's an advisor for Inseparable, a national organization focused on creating pragmatic mental health policy. And he's launching a stress and anxiety relief supplement company.
"There's certainly a collective trauma that stems from everything that's going on and I would like to think that maybe, for some, we can find opportunities for post traumatic growth," he said. "There's a lot to do. I see that there's tailwind relating to reducing stigma associated with mental health."
Zak says self-care is essential to mental health, noting, "If you don't prioritize yourself, to fill your cup personally, then you can feel very drained. I'm very focused on talk therapy, engaging in community support groups, I personally stay away from drugs and alcohol, that's been very helpful for me, especially during this time. It's enabled me to deal with feelings of anxiety and depression head on."
His son, Mickey, turns one this week. Mickey is short for McLaurin, which was Robin's middle name.
"As a dad, I hope my son can grow up in a stigma free world," said Zak. "When it comes to sharing and being vulnerable, I think we need to shift our mindset from thinking about it as a weakness, to thinking about it as a strength."
He adds, "We need to come out of this coronavirus pandemic with a growth-oriented mindset, around supporting others in our communities to create a more connected, happier world."
If you are or know somebody who is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.