Beloved by millions the world over, actor and comedian Robin Williams didn't show his audience that he was a man in pain.
But the stories that surfaced following the actor's death from an apparent suicide by hanging painted a much different picture -- one of a man living with depression and addiction. It's a sad, but familiar story to many local mental health experts, including Dr. Sheila Cooperman, vice chairwoman of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport. She said Williams' death puts a familiar, well-loved face on mental illness, from which many people suffer in silence.
"It's very important that we learn something from this," Cooperman said. "Depression and drug addiction occur in the lives of very talented people, as well as everyday people. And depression is not something to be brushed aside. If it's untreated, it can have very serious consequences."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. In 2012, about 16 million adults ages 18 or older reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness, and that roughly 30,000 people a year take their own lives.
Substance abuse and addiction are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Williams was open about his struggles with addiction, and even checked into a rehab clinic in July.
In the wake of Williams' death, mental health professionals said the event at least has the potential to draw attention to the role substance abuse can play in depression. The death of another respected actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, from a drug overdose in February, created more discussion and interest around preventing overdoses, and Williams' death could do the same for depression, said Dr. Charles J. Morgan, chairman of Bridgeport Hospital's psychiatry department. "People need to seek treatment," he said. "This is a brain disorder. This is not a weakness."
Dr. Jeremy Barowsky, addiction specialist at Greenwich Hospital, agreed Williams' death could provoke discussion about mental illness and suicide prevention.
"It's terrible on the one hand, but it does call attention to the fact we don't always know when people are suffering," said Barowsky, a staff psychiatrist at Greenwich Hospital. He said Williams was "someone who, on paper, had no need to be depressed. But we don't exist in a vacuum."
Barowsky said people can turn to many resources if they or a loved one are suffering from depression, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The alliance provides information on local chapters and support groups at its website, nami.org. People shouldn't hesitate to reach out if a loved one is depressed and/or exhibiting suicidal behavior, Barowsky said. "You should be very concerned when you see dramatic changes in people's behavior," he said.
Symptoms can include insomnia, irritability and talking frequently about suicide. Experts said, with ongoing treatment, people living with mental illness and suicidal thoughts can be helped.
"Maybe we can use (Williams' death) as a moment to say `Look, there are treatment options available,'" Cooperman said.
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