Comic Robin Williams’ Death Puts Spotlight on Depression, Suicide

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 15, 2014

Last Monday evening, millions of Americans were shocked to hear that 63-year- old Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide. While it was well-known that he had a history of severe depression and years of alcohol and drug addiction, we were stunned by the unexpected tragic news. publically, Williams had it all, fame, fortune, loyal friends, and fans in every corner of the globe. But like millions of Americans he suffered in silence trying to slay his personal demons when he went into substance abuse treatment.

The sudden death of this Oscar-winning actor, recognized as America’s comic genius, squarely puts the spotlight on depression, a mental illness that commonly afflicts tens of millions of Americans.

DDepression Becomes a Public Conversation

Within the first 48 hours of Williams’ suicide The Samaritans of Rhode Island saw an increase in calls from people concerned about loved ones and friends, says Executive Director Denise Panichas, who expects to also see an increase in visits to her Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s website. Last year, its website received more than 50,000 visitors.

Panichas says, “William’s death reinforces the fact that suicide knows no boundaries, it being a relentless demon afflicting both rich or poor, and those having access to therapy or medical care and those not having it.

According to the Woonsocket resident, William’s suicide has raised the awareness of suicide prevention in a way that millions of dollars in public health announcements could never have done. “William’s movies as well as his dedication to community service resonate with multiple generations, says Panichas, stressing that his six plus decades had value “which will live on.”

Williams substance abuse problems also highlights the need for more awareness as to how addictions can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, states Panichas, who observes that throughout the country, in ever city and town, budgets for substance abuse treatment are being decimated, she adds.

“Promoting wellness and preventing addictions will always be a big challenge but we must do more if we want to see a decrease in suicides,” says Panichas.

Panichas expects the death of Williams, an internationally acclaimed movie star, will have an impact on fundraising for suicide prevention or addiction and depression prevention programs. She has seen an increase in donations from Rhode Islanders as well as from around the country. .

“One donor gave a donation in memory of “Mork”. The donations coming in may be small but every one counts toward keeping our programs available to the public,” says Panichas, noting that over the years public funding has “been drying up.” The Samaritans of RI is using more creative fundraising structures, like crowdfunding (www.crowdrise.com/samaritansri2014) and other social venture sites to create new revenue streams for her nonprofit, she adds.

An Illness That Can Affect Anyone

Lisa B. Shea, MD, Medical Director of Providence-based Butler Hospital, Providence, learned of William’s suicide by a CNN alert on her IPhone. To the board- certified psychiatrist who serves as a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Alpbert Medical School, “it was tragic but preventable.”

Shea, a practicing psychiatrist for 20 years, notes that people who have suicidal thoughts, like Williams, are struggling with mental health disorders. “Their thinking can get very dark and narrow and they believe they have no options,” she says, oftentimes feeling like a burden to others. “It does not matter who you are mental illness can strike any one regardless of their wealth and fame,” she says.

According to Shea, the public’s interest in William’s tragic death sheds light on the fact that people can get help and it begins with taking a positive first step. “People with suicidal thoughts, who feel “intensely tortured and can not see any way out of their situation, can benefit from supportive therapeutic relationships, medications, and getting support from family and friends who can push them into getting professional help,” she says.

Shea calls on Congress and Rhode Island state lawmakers to positively respond to the William’s suicide by providing increased funding to create access to treatment and prevention programs and to support mental health research.

Finally, Shea says that there are a number of tell-tale signs of a person expressing hopelessness who may be thinking of ending their life. They include statements made by someone that others are better off if he or she were not around; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; not taking care of yourself; and giving away personal items. When these occur, talk to the person telling them that you care about them and are concerned for their well-being.

Adds Melinda Kulish, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist/Clinical Neuropsychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “There are also times when depression is not easily recognizable. Some people who are depressed experience it most acutely when by themselves but can appear fine, even quite happy, when they are with other people.”

Kulish explains that, for various reasons, some people feel the need to make others happy. Cheering others up or making others laugh makes them also feel happy.

“But, if that person is suffering from depression, the happiness is fleeting – the laughter ends and they once again feel empty and sad. The cheering up of others is a fix that is OUTSIDE, not inside of them.

“And drugs and alcohol can make them feel better for a time. The high always ends, and when alone, they feel empty and even more depressed,” says Kulish. “There’s really good research to suggest that talking about traumatic and upsetting events leads to much healthier responses. The old idea, ‘I’m just not going to talk about it so it’ll go away’ doesn’t work.”

“It’s a myth that if you ask a person if they are suicidal you will put that idea in their heads,” says Shea.

Feeling Low, a Place to Call

When this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers once said in a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the desperate and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its website.

Executive Director Panichas, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2014, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 4,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Art Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go tohttp://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll-free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For mental health resources, go to http://www.butler.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

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