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Robin Williams' Death Heightens Mental Health Concerns

August 15, 2014

The apparent suicide of famed actor and comedian Robin Williams has reignited public discussion of depression, suicide – and now a potential link to Parkinson’s disease. It’s a discussion that should remain beyond news cycles, say many public health and mental health advocates.

"It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid," said Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider, as reported by the Reuters news agency.

Williams, whose career was largely built upon smiles and laughter, serves to remind us that depression has no face. The latest CDC figures indicate 1,126 suicides occurred in Georgia in 2011, representing an increase from two years earlier. For men in Williams’ age range – he was 63 years old – the figures are even worse.

According to the CDC, suicide among men ages 45 to 64 has increased by 15 percent since the year 2000. The same report indicates a common link to mental health problems.

“This gifted actor and comedian’s tragic death highlights for everyone the fact that depression and suicidal thoughts can, and do, affect individuals from all walks of life,” said Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., professor and vice chair, Emory Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and president of the American Psychological Association. 

“Even though people feel incredibly hopeless and helpless when they are depressed, the reality is there is outstanding professional help available in the form of psychotherapy, medication, rehab programs, etc.,” said Kaslow. “Everyone who is struggling should be encouraged to seek help and loved ones and other community members need to assist them in doing so.”

Disaster Mental Health Services Coordinator Jeannette David with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) says depression is not uncommon whenever someone undergoes a significant change in routine.

“Mental illness is a risk factor associated with negative reactions after an emergency or disaster,” said David. “Changes in routine, access to treatment and medication, or loss of social supports that may occur after a disaster place additional stressors on individuals who are already vulnerable.”

Suicide Prevention Program Coordinator Sally vander Straeten with Georgia DBHDD says suicide risk factors include depression, prior suicide attempts, a family history of suicide, social isolation, family discord and medical conditions.

“The more risk factors there are in the person’s life, the higher the risk,” said vander Straeten. “For instance, when someone is depressed and then loses their job and then their financial situation becomes desperate, their risk for suicide goes up.”

Family, friends and professionals need to be aware of life-changing events of others in their care or love, and recognize how those events are affecting them, said Vander Straeten.

For immediate help with depression or suicide, call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line anytime at 1-800-715-4225 or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).