Every 13 minutes someone in the United States dies from suicide; the equivalent of 108 people every day. Suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., with close to 40,000 Americans dying annually.
Robin Williams’ apparent suicide has shocked the nation. The death of this rich, famous, and funny man brings to light the important fact that mental illness, addiction and suicide do not discriminate. In fact, those are some of the exact factors that can make a person at risk for suicide.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to what is often a temporary problem, and that problem is often depression,” Dr. Douglas Jacobs, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has said.
Risk factors for suicide are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take his or her life. Knowing these factors can lead to increased awareness and help-seeking behaviors for a person in need. Some of these factors include: mental disorders, in particular, depression or bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, alcohol or substance use or dependence, previous suicide attempts, family history of attempted or completed suicide and a serious medical condition and/or pain. Suicide risk tends to be highest when someone has several risk factors at the same time.
Educating individuals about warning signs of suicide is just as important a step in suicide prevention as knowing risk factors. Signs an individual might display include, but are not limited to: talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead, looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun, talking about a specific suicide plan, feeling hopeless or helpless or having no reason to live, feeling trapped, desperate, or needing to escape from an intolerable situation, losing interest in things, or losing the ability to experience pleasure, insomnia, and becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family, and others. Research shows that talking to someone about suicide does not increase their chances of going through with the act; in fact it may lower the immediate risk.
Mental illness affects one in four people directly. This also means that everyone involved with this individual will certainly feel its impact. Open conversations about the reality of these illnesses, and their potential to be fatal, are necessary. Awareness of mental health issues, as well as warning signs, positive interventions and treatment are essential to prevention.
It is impossible for us to know exactly what Robin Williams was thinking or going through at the time of his death and many are left asking “Why”? If we continue to educate ourselves and learn from this tragedy we can hopefully save a life.
If you, or someone you, know is having suicidal thoughts call The MHANC HELPLINE at (516) 504-HELP (4357) or the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-(800)-273-TALK (8255) or go to your nearest hospital emergency room.
Michael J. Chambers is executive director of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of Nassau County, Inc.