The death of actor Robin Williams has triggered a national discussion on suicide, a topic too often dismissed, according to mental health professionals.
Williams, 63, apparently committed suicide by hanging himself Monday, the Marin County Sheriff’s Department reported. But his case is only one of thousands of suicides that occur annually.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages. Nearly 40,000 Americans commit suicide each year, and about 487,000 people receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries.
Cesar Velasquez, a program coordinator with Merced County Mental Health Services, hopes that Williams’ high-profile case can help bring needed attention to suicide and mental illnesses.
“As a community, we have to embrace that this a serious disease,” Velasquez said of suicide. “His death, while tragic because he was adored by millions, will hopefully allow us to look at depression and suicide in a more humane way.”
There are always warning signs, Velasquez added. The problem is that most people do not recognize those signs, he said. While each case varies, some of the more common clues to a possible suicide attempt are changes in behavior, isolation from family and friends, substance abuse and just talking about the act of suicide.
“Many times people will mention it, but we dismiss it. We don’t hear the depth of the pain and helplessness,” Velasquez said, “and yet we’re surprised when an act occurs. It’s important to keep in mind that suicide is not an isolated event. ... It’s the final act of a continuum.”
Mary Hoffman is a family program coordinator with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Merced County, a nonprofit that offers education, support and advocacy for mental illness patients and their families. According to Hoffman, openly speaking about mental illness is critical to combat its stigma.
“People are scared to death by it; they don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “But it’s there, it’s a fact of life. If we ignore it, it’s not going to go away, it’s actually going to get worse.”
Hoffman advises that if people hear someone speak about a possible suicide attempt, it should be taken seriously. “Ask questions, ask them if they have a plan. If they have a plan on how to take their life, that better get reported immediately,” she said.
Williams’ suicide, according to Hoffman, was not of much surprise to her and volunteers at NAMI.
“The man lived a life of extremes,” she said. “He was amazing, but he was on all the time. No one’s brain can go that fast and not crash. He was like a rubber band that was stretched out as far as it would go.”
Data by the American Association of Suicidology reveals that middle-aged men, ages 45 to 64, have the highest suicide rate (18.6 per 100,000). The second highest rate (15.3 per 100,000) occurs among the elderly, 85 and older. Adolescents and young adults, ages 15 to 24 have a suicide rate of 11 per 100,000.
However, depression is a treatable condition, and the earlier it is diagnosed and treated, the more lives will be saved, Velasquez said. Depression can become a biochemical imbalance if not treated, he explained. When that happens, a patient would need both medication and therapy, just one or the other wouldn’t be enough.
Although people enter the county’s mental health services system in various ways, the most common are a clinician’s referral and the hospital emergency room. And even though resources are available on local and national levels, these services are underused, both Hoffman and Velasquez said.
Locally, NAMI volunteers are preparing to open three new classes for people who are directly and indirectly affected by mental illnesses. These classes will offer patients peer-to-peer interaction, as well as counseling and support for the families and friends of mental health patients. For more information and registration, call (209) 381-6844.
To reach the Merced County Department of Mental Health, call (209) 381-6800 or the toll-free number (888) 334-0163. The department can offer assessments and the proper resources, depending on each case.
For suicide prevention, call the Central Valley Suicide Prevention Hotline at (888) 506-5991 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.