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Robin Williams' death raises public awareness about depression

Fans, friends and family mourn the loss of Robin Williams.
Fans, friends and family mourn the loss of Robin Williams.
Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Generations loved Robin Williams. They marveled at his magnificent Mork, chuckled at his antics as Aladdin and were mesmerized by his magnificent talents in films such as "Good Morning, Vietnam." Now, however, as more knowledge about the emotional anguish that caused him to commit suicide comes to light, the world's loss of his brilliance is leading to more awareness about the dangers of depression, reported NBC News on August 12.

Depression ranks as one of the biggest factors in suicide. But because of the stigma related to both, researchers have problems getting funding to determine new ways to help.

Matthew Nock, a Harvard professor of psychology and one of the world’s leading suicide researchers, describes it as "a really big problem." Getting money for suicide research and prevention "just pales in comparison to cancer and AIDS, and all this other stuff because of the stigma associated with it," he added.

The suicide rate among those in Williams' age group has increased more than 30 percent in the last decade. It's even higher among white, upper-middle-aged men, with an increase of more than 50 percent. And Williams, say experts, suffered from all the warning signs that so many men in that age group are trained from childhood to hide.

With his quick wit and sharp intelligence, Williams succeeded in shielding his darkest emotions even from those closest to him. Work helped him protect his inner demons, but that protective mask of comedy also made those who detected his sorrow hesitate to reach out.

Close friend and film producer Stanley Wilson felt that Williams was "totally proud" of his professional accomplishments. But in an August 12 interview with the New York Times, he also admitted that his friend had, for decades, been a "melancholic guy."

Williams managed to maintain his comedic mask despite battling alcohol, addiction, severe depression and even heart surgery. In contrast to some celebrities who could not maintain their professionalism when addiction overcame them, Williams kept going. Then, three weeks prior to his death, Williams stopped appearing in public.

And that, said Dr. Drew Pinsky, was part of the problem. When people isolate, it's a warning sign. He told Extra TV on August 12 that isolation and depression should not be ignored.

"If you stay with people" and prevent them from isolating, said Pinsky, you can help them. But especially for those battling other demons, such as addiction, it takes a combination of support from those close and professional help to overcome the inner struggle.

Some questioned how it was possible that Williams had just completed time in rehab and not received sufficient help to overcome his depression. But it's precisely that post-rehab period of adjustment that can make someone most vulnerable, said Nadine Kaslow, a psychology professor and vice-chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, in an August 12 interview with the Washington Post.

With his show cancelled, his treatment completed and his chronic depression clouding his world, Williams was at his most vulnerable, says Kaslow. And it was hard for him to ask for help.

"Men are much less likely to seek help than women are," said Michelle Cornette, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. And that applies both to personal and professional help.

"Apart from seeking help professionally, [men] utilize their friendships in different ways. Men are less likely to disclose to a male friend that they are struggling psychologically," said Cornette.

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