Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Tributes surround Robin Williams’ Hollywood Walk of Fame star in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the day after he was found dead in his home.

Editorial: Robin Williams’ death a teachable moment about preventing suicide

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 - 11:57 am

It’s a tragedy whenever people take their own lives. But when someone of comedian Robin Williams’ stature commits suicide, it is so much worse.

Not because his death matters more than that of anyone else – it doesn’t – but because of how it may affect people also suffering from mental illness and at risk for suicide.

Suicide prevention experts note that in the weeks following the death of famous people, suicides will spike between 2 and 12 percent. It’s a contagion of sorts in that the news of one high-profile suicide will infect others struggling with the same demons.

Though wealthy and beloved by the public, Williams grappled with depression and substance abuse much of his life. After actor John Belushi died of a heroin overdose in 1982, Williams stopped using drugs. But he relapsed occasionally and was at rehab earlier this summer.

To someone suffering from depression and already feeling hopeless, the news of Williams’ death can plunge them deeper into despair. They may think: If someone with the best help money can buy can still succumb to suicidal thoughts, what chance do I have?

How is it possible that a man so funny would die of suicide at 63? Tragedy is the opposite of comedy. But depression is a disease of the body, and it can strike no matter your station in life.

If information can make suicide go viral, it can combat it, too. That’s why to honor Williams’ life and mourn his death we all should use this as a teachable moment.

The lessons: Mental illness is treatable; suicide is preventable; middle-aged white males are at the greatest risk for suicide; and, most importantly, there is help available even for people who aren’t rich and famous.

At the moment, the California Legislature is considering a bill, AB 2198, which would require that mental health care providers have a certain amount of suicide prevention in their training. The debate is whether their current training on mental illness is sufficient.

What is not debatable is that all of us can do more to help prevent suicide by learning to recognize the risk factors in ourselves and in others.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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