Robin Williams' Depression and Suicide; Preventable Tragedies

Unless you live in a cave, by now you must have heard that a great talent, Robin Williams, died yesterday, most probably from suicide. At the time I went to bed last night there weren’t a lot of details except for a press release stating that Mr. Williams died after suffering from a long bout with depression. This is a double tragedy because, first we lost one of the most genuinely funny people on the planet and secondly because depression is TREATABLE and suicide is PREVENTABLE.
A very large portion of my practice is devoted to helping people with depression, and this is important, the very vast majority of them get better! Now don’t get me wrong, by ‘better’ I don’t mean that everyone winds up eating rainbows and farting butterflies, but they do gain an understanding of their depression and often in conjunction with their medical provider, we help the person get to a stage where their depression is manageable and they develop a normal and healthy quality of life.
But first things first. Let’s spend this morning looking at the warning signs of suicide and what you can do if you recognize them in someone you know. Portions of this blog were originally published on 2/26/13:
Robin Williams (probably) killed himself yesterday after long suffering from depression. With that in mind, I have to ask, “Why didn’t the people around him recognize that he was at high risk for self-harm?” My guess is they simply didn’t know what to look for. Let’s make sure you readers aren’t in the same position.
www.suicide.org has a wealth of information regarding suicide and suicide prevention including the following list of warning signs for suicide:

  • Suicide Warning Signs:
    • Appearing depressed or sad most of the time.
  • (Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.)
    • Talking or writing about death or suicide.
    • Withdrawing from family and friends.
    • Feeling hopeless.
    • Feeling helpless.
    • Feeling strong anger or rage.
    • Feeling trapped — like there is no way out of a situation.
    • Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
    • Abusing drugs or alcohol.
    • Exhibiting a change in personality.
    • Acting impulsively.
    • Losing interest in most activities.
    • Experiencing a change in sleeping habits.
    • Experiencing a change in eating habits.
    • Losing interest in most activities.
    • Performing poorly at work or in school.
    • Giving away prized possessions.
    • Writing a will.
    • Feeling excessive guilt or shame.
    • Acting recklessly.

While it’s true that some people who complete suicide don’t show any warning signs, about 75 percent of those who die by suicide do exhibit some suicide warning signs. If you or someone you know exhibits several of the suicide warning signs listed above, immediate action is required!
So what can you do?
First of all talk to the person and ask them if they’re thinking about harming themselves. And don’t worry, you don’t give a suicidal person dangerous ideas by talking about suicide. In fact, the opposite is true; giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings can provide relief from loneliness and negative self-talk, and may actually prevent a suicide attempt.
Now, what if they say, ‘Yes, I am thinking of killing myself?” You need to do a simple assessment and ask them:

    • Do you have a suicide plan?
    • Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)?
    • Do you know when you would do it?

If they answer yes to these, Do Not Leave the Person Alone, and either call 911 or take the person to the nearest emergency room. After that, be as supportive as you possibly can, and let them know that you are there for them, and they are not alone.
I wonder if someone near him knew then, what you know now, would Robin Williams be alive right now?
Please come back tomorrow when we begin our discussion of depression; what it is, how to recognize it and various treatment options.
In the meantime, have an intentionally great and life-affirming day.
Rich

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2 Comments

  1. Ellen Weisner Robare August 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Something that I’ve been hearing a lot lately with regards to mental health is that the bigger problem is access to the needed care. You may very well know all the signs and know that yourself or a loved one needs help, but mental health isn’t covered on your “plan”, or it is but you can’t get an appointment until 2 months out, etc. Your thoughts on this would be very interesting!

  2. Ellen,
    You’re right when you point out that access and affordability can be problems. One point of access is the local community mental health office. They offer free or very low cost services and my experience has been if you inform them it’s an urgent situation, they’ll get you in quickly.
    If the situation is an emergency then a hospital emergency room is where you need to go. Most insurance plans will cover at least the initial ER visit .

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