After Robin Williams passed away on Monday, media was flooded with tributes to the actor and comedian, as well as the details of his last moments.
Patrick Tenney, suicide prevention coordinator for the West Virginia Council for the Prevention of Suicide, said that another part of the story was drowned out.
“A lot of times we don’t see the pain left behind,” he said.
Suicide contagion, or an increased prevalence of suicide after one is highly publicized, can be a risk after a celebrity suicide, Tenney said.
“Some people think if I die this way, people are going to remember me,” he said. “Sometimes it gets glamorized for people.”
In reality, for those left behind, the aftermath of a suicide can be an isolating experience.
“Your family and friends don’t know what to say to you,” Tenney said. “Suicide is one of those things we don’t talk a lot about as a society. It makes people uncomfortable.”
In 2011 — the latest year for which data is available — there were 306 reported suicide deaths in West Virginia, a rate of 16.5 people per 100,000, ranking the state 14th for the number of suicides.
Tenney said for every suicide death, an average of 7-10 people are intimately affected.
Bob Musick, chief executive officer of the suicide prevention council, would have liked to see Williams’ method of death reported differently.
He would have preferred to read, “Robin Williams, an actor, age 63, died at his home in California due to severe depression,” he said.
“We don’t want to glamorize it,” he said. “We want to talk about where you can get help.”
Tenney pointed out that Williams and many others take their lives while battling a treatable illness.
“The real important thing is that there’s hope,” he said. “It doesn’t have to end like it did for Robin Williams.”
Tenney and Musick directed those with depression or other mental health problems to one of the state’s 13 comprehensive behavioral health centers, including Prestera Center in Charleston, private counselors, and emergency departments.
They also recommended talking to a friend or family member, and joining church groups and other organizations that involve connecting with other people.
They acknowledged finding the right treatments and recovering from mental illness takes time.
“It’s an illness,” Musick said. “If you had cancer, you wouldn’t go to one appointment would you? Our world is no different.”
But they also said there is research that suggests treatments can be effective. There are also recent advancements in treatment options.
“Depression is one of the most treatable diseases out there,” Tenney said.
Both said the most important step is reaching out for help, from both professionals and loved ones, and realizing battling mental illness requires help.
“Generally the folks want help,” Musick said. “There’s a ton of research out there that shows people don’t want to die. They just don’t want to be in pain any longer, but they don’t know what to do. That’s what we try to do. Give us a chance to work with you ... There are other ways to treat this problem other than taking your life.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255.)
More resources are also available at http://preventsuicidewv.org.
Reach Erin Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5163 or follow @ErinbeckWV on Twitter.