One in 10 Americans reportedly suffers from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Robin Williams was one of them.
On Monday, however, Williams became part of another statistical group — those who commit suicide.
At 63, Williams hung himself in his California home, leaving behind a wife and three children.
How could a man who brought millions of people so much joy with his comedy and performances be fighting an internal battle so intensely and how can we, as a society, help the common man who is fighting the same battle?
“I think people often think of mental illness as being in the background and having a certain look — but this was a person we all knew,” said Annette Carbonneau. “I think it elevates the conversation in a positive way.”
Carbonneau is grants operation and volunteer development manager at NAMI-NH, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She and 29 other individuals completed the state’s first Mental Health First Aid training last month. The five-day program certifies participants to teach at least three Mental Health First Aid programs — teaching people how to recognize mental illness symptoms and how to talk to sufferers and guide them to helpful resources.
“For me, it’s the same as any other first aid course,” Carbonneau said. “We grow up learning about first aid — what to do if someone’s having a heart attack, what to do if someone’s bleeding — generally we rush to help people when they’re hurt. My hope is that this type of training will become as regular and common as regular first aid training, and people will no longer have that fear of mental illness and see it as such a foreign thing.”
Carbonneau said her son and father both have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She said people are hesitant to get help because they’re afraid acknowledging the illness is a life sentence of pain and being judged by others.
“Some people see mental illness as some sort of terminal disease, but there is so much hope,” said Carbonneau. “There are so many resources that can help. Ask for help, even if you’re concerned that it’s not really for sure; it’s worth learning about it. Just talk about it.”
Rik Cornell, vice president with the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, agrees.
“How suicide can be prevented is really by people being willing to ask questions when they see people who look like they’re having a difficult time,” Cornell said. “One of the most important things is being able to communicate with people. What we sometimes hear is people — after the fact — saying, ‘He or she didn’t seem right when they were always right’ and this feeling of regret for not speaking up.”
Cornell said events like Williams’ death don’t necessarily cause a “chain reaction” of suicide, but they do bring up a lot of complicated emotions in those suffering from depression and mental illness.
“Here’s a person we knew as a funny, loving, kind, really nice guy to be around, who made people laugh in horrible times who couldn’t even deal with his own sadness and ends his life in that way,” said Cornell. “It’s just a perfect example of someone not being able to talk about their feelings. Stigma is a terrible thing, and one of the things that leads to more mental illness is stigma.”
Dr. Marie Opie Williams, a family counselor at New Hampshire’s Child and Family Services, said there needs to be a societal shift.
“We’ve got to understand that depression is a real, legitimate physical illness and that it affects the brain and the brain is part of the body,” she said. “We need to treat it like we would if someone gets a cold, or the flu or diabetes. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Opie Williams said symptoms of depression vary, but can include a change in sleeping and eating patterns, a loss of joy in activities someone once enjoyed and a change in energy level. One of the under-recognized signs is a period of extreme sadness and depression followed by a period of happiness. This period usually occurs once a person has started or finished formulating a suicide plan.
Those suffering from mild to moderate depression can devise a wellness plan that involves a combination of counseling and alternative care methods, such as yoga, healthy eating and an exercise plan. Opie Williams said those suffering from severe depression — more than two weeks of intense sadness in adults and more than a week of intense sadness in children — should use a combination of counseling and medication.
“There’s so many ways for you to get support,” said Opie Williams. “It’s important to use the opportunity (Williams’ suicide) to discuss how to get help and de-stigmatize the way we discuss mental illness.”
For more information on suicide prevention and depression, visit http://suicidepreventionmessaging.org, http://www.naminh.org.