The recent death of Robin Williams left many people asking “why”? Why would someone with seemingly so much – he entertained millions and was beloved the world over, earned countless awards and honors, lived a life of great wealth and privilege and, reportedly, was surrounded by a loving circle of family and friends – choose to end his life?
It’s a complex question and there is no simple answer. Recent speculation has it that a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease may have been a contributing factor to Williams’s suicide – learning of a terminal or debilitating medical condition can, indeed, play a role in a person’s decision to take their life – yet many people are dealt devastating health news and they don’t take their lives.
It is estimated that some 50,000 people take their lives each year. Ironically, most suicidal people don't want to die, they simply want their feelings of pain and despair to stop and they don’t see any other way out. Suicidal impulses don't last forever but the effects of suicide do and they leave a path of emotional devastation for survivors that oftentimes never heal.
Mr. Williams’s death has opened a floodgate of questions about the topic. Are there any warning signs to look out for? How can we tell the difference between someone being dramatic and one with true intent? Is there anything I can do to prevent such an act?
Suicide can be precipitated by a number of things including an episode of depression, psychosis or anxiety; significant loss (e.g., death of a spouse or loved one, divorce, job, health); serious post traumatic stress disorder like that experienced by soldiers returning from combat; a major life event like moving away from your support system of family and friends; diagnosis of a debilitating or terminal illness; and even medication designed to help yet triggers an unexpected change in mood. Even the death of a celebrity can set the stage for an unstable person to take his or her life. (Upon Mr. Williams’s death, suicide hotlines around the country lit up with record numbers of calls.)
So what are some of the warning signs?
• Talking about suicide (do not dismiss such comments, especially if they are made frequently)
• Making statements of hopelessness, helplessness, not seeing a way out of their circumstances
• Obtaining a gun, hoarding medications/drugs or engaging in similar behaviors
• Suddenly reaching out to old friends and family members out of the blue
• Giving away prized possessions
If someone you know is exhibiting these warning signs, it’s best to:
• Ask them if they are serious about taking their life (despite the myth, asking the question does not trigger the act). Tell family members and friends and form a support system
• If you assess a moderate to high degree of risk (e.g., person is specific about how he/she intends to take his/her life, they’ve attempted suicide before, they have purchased a gun or are hoarding drugs), do not leave their side until the situation is stabilized
• Demand that they form a “contract” with you where they promise not to hurt themselves before contacting you
• Assist them in seeking professional help and if they are not improving, encourage them to go elsewhere until they feel they are in safe hands
Jeff Ball, PhD, is Executive Director of PCH Treatment Center (www.PCHTreatment.com) in West Los Angeles, which specializes in intensive and holistic psychological treatment. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.