Robin Williams’ suicide sparks important conversations

While the death of Oscar-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams has prompted expressions of sadness from around the globe, some local grief and suicide prevention experts said the loss also has stimulated important conversations.

Suicide-depression-r100When news hit that Williams had taken his own life Aug. 11, the celebrity’s death sparked discussions about suicide, mental illness and grief.

Williams’ death is tragic, but it has focused attention on a topic that many people would prefer to avoid, said Betsey Westuba, chairwoman of the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition.

“When I say the word ‘suicide,’ I find people will change the subject. I call it the ‘S-word,’ because people want to run away from it,” said Westuba, who also facilitates a group that meets in Lutz for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. “The point is, it’s real. It’s out there.”

To help combat the problem, people must become more alert to signs that others are thinking about suicide, and must be willing to step in to do what they can to help, she said.

Jason Tompkins, a licensed clinical social worker, said the death by suicide of a well-known personality, such as Williams, can serve as a catalyst to raise awareness to help prevent suicides.

“A high-profile suicide starts a lot of conversations with people who would not be having this conversation,” said Tompkins, who coordinates the annual International Survivors of Suicide Loss Conference.

While Williams’ death has received worldwide attention and prolonged media coverage, there have been hundreds of suicides around the country that have occurred since Williams died, Tompkins noted.

Up to 39,000 people die by suicide in the United States each year, Tompkins said. That works out to more than 100 people a day.

Deaths by suicide tend to raise many questions, Tompkins said.

“A lot of the questions that I hear in the aftermath of suicide: ‘Why did they do it? How come we couldn’t stop them? Didn’t they know that we loved them?’” Tompkins said. “Those are the types of questions that, years later sometimes, people wrestle with.”

Grief is a common reaction to deaths of all kinds, said Grace Terry, founder of Grief Resolution Resources of Tampa. It’s not uncommon, either, for people to feel a certain measure of regret for things they should or shouldn’t have done before their loved one passed away. Those regrets can be magnified when the death is by suicide.

“I believe that friends and families of those who die by suicide have a particularly difficult grief challenge,” Terry said. “No matter what the circumstance or situation, people who have loved ones die by suicide have a crushing sense of guilt.”

People wonder how someone like Williams — who was talented, rich and famous — could reach a point where he would end his life.

“When someone is incredibly depressed, it doesn’t matter how wealthy they are or how much fame they have,” Terry said. “Really, none of that matters if someone is clinically depressed.”

There are ways to help people — both those who may be considering suicide and those who are coping with the loss of a loved one through suicide — the experts said. Treatment is available, Terry said. And in many cases, those who seek professional help can get better.

“Depression can be mild, moderate or severe,” Terry said. There are times when it becomes life-threatening and life-ending, she added.

If you suspect someone needs help, it’s important to respond, Terry said.

“Express your concern in a loving way,” Terry said. Offer to go with them to see a doctor or attend a support group.

Be direct, Westuba said. If you suspect someone is suffering through depression, ask, “Are you suicidal? Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Then help them find professional help.

There are some actions to avoid, Terry said.

“Do not nag. Do not scold. Do not shame people,” she said. “Do not tell people, ‘Get a grip. Get over it.’ Or, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ That does more harm than good.”

Those who take their own lives generally have impaired judgment, said Terry, who at one point in her life was clinically depressed and considered ending her life.

“People who attempt to complete suicide are usually in so much emotional pain that they have no capacity to consider what pain their action might cause someone else,” she said.

The death of a comic genius that brought so much joy to others illustrates what a pervasive and potentially deadly force depression can be.

“What comes out of all of this is that we never know when someone is suffering suicidal thoughts,” said Westuba, who facilitates a group called Healing After a Loved One’s Suicide. “It’s a very complex situation.”

The group meets at Suncoast Kids Place in Lutz, which is part of Van Dyke Church. Westuba leads a group for adults, but another group for teenagers is expected to begin meeting in September.

Such settings can be helpful for people who are coming to terms with their loss and their grief, Tompkins said.

Even if there are no easy answers, he added, “It does seem very helpful and beneficial to be able to have a place to ask those questions.

“I think that it’s important to remember that grief is a process,” he said. “It’s not like a light switch” that can be easily turned off and on. “For many survivors, the sad part lives on for a long time.”

Suicide Hotline: (800) 273-8255
Local 211 hotline: Visit 211.org and enter your ZIP code to find help for all sorts of issues.

WHAT: Healing After a Loved One’s Suicide
WHO: Adults, 18 and older
WHEN: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the first and third Wednesday of each month
WHERE: 17030 Lakeshore Road, Building G, Lutz
COST: Free
INFO: Suncoast Kids Place, (813) 990-0216

Warning signs
People who die by suicide often show one or more of these warning signs before they take action:

• Talk about wanting to kill themselves, or say they wish they were dead
• Look for ways to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
• Talk about a specific suicide plan
• Feel hopeless or having no reason to live
• Feel trapped, desperate, or needing to escape from an intolerable situation
• Feel like they’re a burden to others
• Feel humiliated
• Have intense anxiety or panic attacks
• Lose interest in things, or lose the ability to experience pleasure
• Experience insomnia
• Become socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family and others
• Acting irritable or agitated
• Show rage or talk about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected, whether or not the situations seem real

Those showing these types of behavior should be evaluated for possible suicide risk by a medical doctor or mental health professional.

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

August 20, 2014

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