Robin Williams' Death Highlights Rising Risk of Suicide

Middle-aged white men have the highest risk, experts say.

August 13, 2014, 12:07 PM

— -- The death of actor Robin Williams has highlighted the rising rate of suicide among middle-aged men, the most successful of whom are in no way immune to depression.

Williams had spoken candidly about his battle with depression and addiction over his four-decade career. He apparently committed suicide by hanging himself Monday, according to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. He was 63.

Nearly 40,000 Americans commit suicide each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate among middle age Americans rose 28 percent between 1999 and 2010, landing suicide in the country’s top 10 leading causes of death.

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The risk of suicide is highest among white people, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the overall suicide rate is about four times higher among men than among women.

About 90 percent of people who commit suicide are suffering from some kind of mental illness like depression, said Dana Alonzo, director of the suicide prevention research program at the Columbia School of Social Work. But not all of them know it.

“The vast majority don’t know they have depression – men in particular,” said Dr. Joseph Calabrese, who directs UH Case Medical Center’s mood disorders program. “And then when they are told that they have a depression, they are reluctant to accept it due to stigma.”

But depression and mental illness are no different than diabetes or heart disease, according to Calabrese, as there are clear cut symptoms and treatments. To be diagnosed with depression, a person has to feel deep sadness “most of the day, nearly every day,” he said. They are also unable to enjoy life and aren’t motivated to do things they normally enjoy.

Though depressed people may have suicidal thoughts, it usually takes drugs and alcohol to prompt those people to act on them, Calabrese said.

Calabrese said to watch out for three emotions in depressed individuals who may be having suicidal thoughts: helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness.

“If somebody is feeling hopeless about the future, they’re at very high risk,” Calabrese said.

Alonzo said not to be afraid to talk to someone who may be suicidal.

“I think one of the most common myths about suicide is …that the worst thing you can do is ask someone about suicide because it will give them the idea,” said Alonzo. “It’s one of the most helpful things you can do.”

Asking someone whether they’re thinking about suicide lets them know you care and won’t judge them, she said. Mayo Clinic suggests using a sensitive tone and asking questions about what’s going on in the person’s life and how they’re coping.

But it’s important to know that if your loved one does commit suicide, it’s not your fault, Alonzo added.

“I think that that’s actually an overlooked group,” she said of people who have lost loved ones to suicide. “They tend to experience more self-directed anger and shame for missing the signs that this was going to happen.”

There are plenty of resources available to people at risk for suicide and their loved ones, Alonzo said.

The Suicide Prevention Center Hotline is located at (877) 7-CRISIS or (877). Or click here for its website.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at 1-800-273-8255. Or click here for its website.

There’s even a relatively new texting line for people who would rather not talk on the phone called the Crisis Text Line. Text the word “listen” to 741741.

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