He’s played nearly every role in the books: a larger-than-life cartoon genie, a grown-up Peter Pan, a divorcee who resorts to cross-dressing to win his wife back, a quirky alien, an inspiring English teacher and a brutally honest therapist who helps a genius in denial find his true love.
But legendary actor Robin Williams’ tragic passing by apparent suicide shines the spotlight on a much more dangerous kind of act that millions of Americans put on every day, in an effort to hide their internal struggles with depression and other mental illnesses. While the definitive cause of Williams’ death remains under investigation, the almost inconceivable passing of such a well-beloved icon draws attention to those among us who are also be suffering in silence; waiting to be heard.
After all, who would’ve thought that the man who portrayed the real-life doctor who showed the medical profession the healing power of laughter could only see a future so dark that he no longer wanted to live? How could the actor who delivered the above speech with such gusto feel that life had left him with no other options?
Knowing when to intervene
The act of suicide claims the lives of over 39,000 Americans each year—a number that almost equals those who die from breast cancer, according to figures from the American Association of Suicidology (AAS).
The unfortunate reality is that individuals fitting Williams’ demographic description (white, middle-aged males) are some of the most likely candidates to commit suicide. And, while there’s no one “cause” of suicide, people who battle depression and/or addiction (like Williams did) are more likely to consider and eventually commit the act. Even those who are outwardly happy, and successful in their personal and professional lives (like Williams was) aren’t immune to hopeless thoughts—a fact we should all keep in mind when looking to our own friends and family members who could be experiencing a profound amount of inner suffering.
Approaching a loved one who you think might be suicidal is no easy task. The first step is to be aware of the warning signs of suicide. The AAS offers the following mnemonic device: Is the path warm?
S: Substance abuse
M: Mood changes
If someone you know is exhibiting these signs, the AAS also offers some tips to intervene and help them get the assistance they need:
Talk it out: Tell them you’re concerned and listen to who they have to say. Take their comments seriously and let them know that you’re there to support them, but that they should also seek professional help.
Be honest: In your discussions, don’t shy away from mentioning the “s” word. Ask them if they’ve ever contemplated suicide. When you refuse to give in to the stigma of the term “suicide,” it can help them feel more comfortable opening up.
Seek outside help: Don’t feel like you need to go it alone with a loved one who might be suicidal. Talk to other individuals who love and care about them, and if you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.