Depression and Suicide: The Robin Williams Effect

For a few days after the sudden and unexpected death of a cultural icon, most people are still reeling and confounded by how someone who seemed to ”have it all” could’ve taken the step to end his or her earthly presence. Looking back on what seemed like a charmed life filled with excitement, success and adoration, the public believes that there was no ”good reason” for this to have happened.

And yet, it did. On August 11, 2014, Oscar-winning actor and acclaimed comedian Robin Williams joined the ranks of those who have committed suicide in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011 suicide was ranked as the 10th leading cause of death among people ages 10 and older, accounting for 39,518 deaths that year. Someone dies from suicide every 13 minutes.

Depression, Addiction and Suicide

Like many people in this country, Robin Williams experienced clinical depression and was plagued by various addictions. Those closest to him were aware of this, but the general public may have been blind to it. This article isn’t about this man who, by all reports, had a gentle and loving demeanor, whip-smart intellect, devotion to charitable causes, dazzling creative wit, and the ability to make people feel a myriad of emotions in a millisecond. But rather, it’s an article about what I’m calling “The Robin Williams Effect.” His death has called attention to the multitudes of people who are suffering from depression and sinking in drug abuse and addiction, feeling helpless to do anything to resolve it, and tragically, taking their own lives.

In the wake of Williams’ death, I heard a brilliant analogy: Imagine standing at the top of the stairs leading to a dark cellar. If you aren’t inclined toward depression (chemically, genetically or circumstantially), you’d likely close the door thinking, “I’m not going there” and walk away. If you experience chronic depression, it’s as if you were pushed down the stairs, the door locked behind you, and you have no clue how to get back out.

For some people with depression, a treatment regimen of psychotherapy, medication, a healthy lifestyle, and the support of family and friends keeps them from making the desperate choice of suicide. For others this isn’t enough, and it’s crucial to understanding the depth of pain a person with depression is experiencing.

Understanding Mental Illness and Suicide

Suicide is a complicated subject, fraught with confusion, judgment and fear, and not something people typically talk about willingly. Much misunderstanding exists about suicide, but when common myths are debunked and the facts are learned, it allows for greater compassion — and perhaps a hand out of the cellar.

Myths and Facts about Suicide

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention outlines several myths and facts about suicide, including:

Myth: People who talk about suicide are just trying to get attention.
Fact: People who die by suicide usually talk about it first. They’re in pain and often reach out for help because they don’t know what to do and have lost hope. Always take someone who talks about suicide seriously — always.

Myth: People who talk about wanting to die by suicide don’t try to kill themselves.
Fact: People who talk about wanting to die by suicide often DO kill themselves.

Myth: Suicide usually occurs without any warning signs.
Fact: There are almost always warning signs of suicide.

Myth: Once people decide to die by suicide, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
Fact: Suicide can be prevented. Most people who are suicidal don’t want to die, they just want to stop their pain.

The Ripple of Suicide

In the past few years, I’ve had two friends who ended their own lives — one by gunshot wound and the other by standing on a railroad track. My initial reaction was a mixture of sadness, anger and understanding. Both of them were highly intelligent, creative, well-loved people. Both had abundant resources they could turn to for help and support. Both were spiritual and had serious health problems that felt like more than they could manage.

The first friend left a note for his wife explaining his decision and had been visited by a group of friends the day before. The other friend didn’t leave a note and there was no indication of the fateful decision she was about to make. My heart went out to their families who were left to pick up the pieces.

Someone is always on clean-up duty when a person ends their own life and it impacts far more than just their immediate circles. A ripple sets forth, as it has in the case of Robin Williams. May his death have some meaning as his life surely had.

There is always hope and there is always help. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For ongoing support, there is Suicide Anonymous.

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