I began writing today’s column weeks before Robin Williams lost his battle with depression Monday. If anything positive has come from this tragedy, it is that people are talking about depression and mental illness.
Mental illness really wasn’t on my radar screen until my brother Ken killed his girlfriend and committed suicide in 1990. On the surface, it didn’t make sense. My brother had a good job, owned a home, drove a new Camaro, had tons of friends and never wanted from female attention. In retrospect, his depression and self-medicating with more and more alcohol is clear.
Just like many physical diseases, depression and other mental illnesses can be hereditary. A person with a depressed sibling is five times more likely to develop depression. I know my family is high risk. Our paternal grandfather was hospitalized in an asylum for months. He later committed suicide.
Suicide is often the end of untreated mental illness. While no one wants to die, they don’t want to live a continuing nightmare that they don’t believe will change. The facts are chilling. While we focus on the 11,000 homicides by firearms every year, the 39,000 suicides and 713,000 trips to the emergency room for self-inflicted harm goes virtually unnoticed. Every day, more than 22 veterans kill themselves.
By far the largest group at risk for suicide is white males. Men complete suicide at four times the rate as women.
Part of the reason may be that men are far more reluctant to seek help. There’s the mistaken belief that mental illness reveals some kind of weakness. Men try to “tough it out.” In all my years of participating and helping facilitate survivors of suicide groups, the survivors ran probably 95 percent female. There’s no shame in needing help.
Before Robin Williams’ death, the only time mental illness made the national news is when some crackpot committed a horrific crime. In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings, Sandy Hook, N.J., massacre and the demented virgin killing spree in Santa Barbara earlier this year, there was talk of keeping guns from those with mental illnesses. But nothing concrete materialized about getting people help.
On the flip side, it’s a mistake to believe that those with mental illness are always dangerous. Most people with mental illness are only a danger to themselves while most murderers are angry, evil or vengeful, not sick. But the fact that a tiny segment of mentally ill people commit awful acts should be incentive to do better outreach, screening and treatment.
For so long, mental illness has taken a back seat to physical illnesses in research dollars and public awareness. That needs to change.
What’s more important is where people can turn to get help. Call National Suicide Prevention at 800-273-8255, Solano County Crisis Services at 428-1131 or visit www.NAMI.org.
One thing we can all do is talk to someone we suspect is depressed. Ask if they’re contemplating suicide. If someone mentions suicide, take him or her seriously. Direct them to help and support them. As with any illness, everyone isn’t going to recover, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Peace.
Kelvin Wade, a former Fairfield resident, is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Sacramento. Email him at [email protected]