Depression and Suicide

The tragic death of Robin Williams this past week has many people talking about depression and suicide.  It is difficult to understand how an actor and comedian as kind, outgoing and beloved as Robin Williams could fail to realize what a difference he had made in so many people’s lives.

The sad truth is, though, that severely depressed people are in terrible pain.  After recurrent bouts of severe depression, exhausted in mind, body and spirit, even death may be preferable to continued suffering.

I know for a fact that you know people who suffer from depression.  With 20% of American adults diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, the illness is incredibly common.  Whether they are a friend, a neighbor, a family member or coworker, they are out there.

What separates the “garden variety” depressed patient from those who are at increased risk of suicide?  How do you know who is at risk? 

There have been a number of risk factors identified for suicide.  Women ATTEMPT suicide more often but men actually are more likely to succeed at taking their own life.  Substance abuse also substantially increases the risk (Robin Williams had recently been in rehab for substance abuse).

In spite of the fact that news media would seem to indicate an epidemic of suicide among teenagers, older adults are actually much more likely to commit suicide than teens.  The elderly are particularly at risk.

Medical illness also increases the risk of suicide, as does the loss of a spouse or job.  Personality traits such as hopelessness and impulsivity increase the risk, as do a personal history of suicide attempt and family history of suicide.

What protects against suicide risk?  As you would expect, a highly resilient and positive nature is protective.  Also, the presence of multiple layers of social support (family, friends and community). 

Strong belief in a faith that does not find suicide acceptable, as well as a belief in an afterlife are protective as well.

Easy access to effective mental health services is important of course 🙂

So what do you do if a friend or family member is depressed and you are worried about suicide.  First of all, it is important to be frank about it with the person in question.  A nonjudgmental approach with warmth and caring is very important.

Encourage the person to see their doctor (their family doctor is the first place to start, most primary care doctors are quite comfortable treating depression).  Also encourage them to engage with their important social supports.  Spend time with family, go to church, plug back in with their friends.

Most important is to remind them that there are those who care about them and want them to be well.  They CAN get better, there IS hope.  Depression and suicide are NOT permanently linked, no matter what.

QUESTION:  Have you lost a friend or family member to suicide?


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