Comic Robin Williams’ Death Puts Spotlight on Depression, Suicide

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 15, 2014

Last Monday evening, millions of Americans were shocked to hear that 63-year- old Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide. While it was well-known that he had a history of severe depression and years of alcohol and drug addiction, we were stunned by the unexpected tragic news. publically, Williams had it all, fame, fortune, loyal friends, and fans in every corner of the globe. But like millions of Americans he suffered in silence trying to slay his personal demons when he went into substance abuse treatment.

The sudden death of this Oscar-winning actor, recognized as America’s comic genius, squarely puts the spotlight on depression, a mental illness that commonly afflicts tens of millions of Americans.

DDepression Becomes a Public Conversation

Within the first 48 hours of Williams’ suicide The Samaritans of Rhode Island saw an increase in calls from people concerned about loved ones and friends, says Executive Director Denise Panichas, who expects to also see an increase in visits to her Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s website. Last year, its website received more than 50,000 visitors.

Panichas says, “William’s death reinforces the fact that suicide knows no boundaries, it being a relentless demon afflicting both rich or poor, and those having access to therapy or medical care and those not having it.

According to the Woonsocket resident, William’s suicide has raised the awareness of suicide prevention in a way that millions of dollars in public health announcements could never have done. “William’s movies as well as his dedication to community service resonate with multiple generations, says Panichas, stressing that his six plus decades had value “which will live on.”

Williams substance abuse problems also highlights the need for more awareness as to how addictions can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, states Panichas, who observes that throughout the country, in ever city and town, budgets for substance abuse treatment are being decimated, she adds.

“Promoting wellness and preventing addictions will always be a big challenge but we must do more if we want to see a decrease in suicides,” says Panichas.

Panichas expects the death of Williams, an internationally acclaimed movie star, will have an impact on fundraising for suicide prevention or addiction and depression prevention programs. She has seen an increase in donations from Rhode Islanders as well as from around the country. .

“One donor gave a donation in memory of “Mork”. The donations coming in may be small but every one counts toward keeping our programs available to the public,” says Panichas, noting that over the years public funding has “been drying up.” The Samaritans of RI is using more creative fundraising structures, like crowdfunding (www.crowdrise.com/samaritansri2014) and other social venture sites to create new revenue streams for her nonprofit, she adds.

An Illness That Can Affect Anyone

Lisa B. Shea, MD, Medical Director of Providence-based Butler Hospital, Providence, learned of William’s suicide by a CNN alert on her IPhone. To the board- certified psychiatrist who serves as a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Alpbert Medical School, “it was tragic but preventable.”

Shea, a practicing psychiatrist for 20 years, notes that people who have suicidal thoughts, like Williams, are struggling with mental health disorders. “Their thinking can get very dark and narrow and they believe they have no options,” she says, oftentimes feeling like a burden to others. “It does not matter who you are mental illness can strike any one regardless of their wealth and fame,” she says.

According to Shea, the public’s interest in William’s tragic death sheds light on the fact that people can get help and it begins with taking a positive first step. “People with suicidal thoughts, who feel “intensely tortured and can not see any way out of their situation, can benefit from supportive therapeutic relationships, medications, and getting support from family and friends who can push them into getting professional help,” she says.

Shea calls on Congress and Rhode Island state lawmakers to positively respond to the William’s suicide by providing increased funding to create access to treatment and prevention programs and to support mental health research.

Finally, Shea says that there are a number of tell-tale signs of a person expressing hopelessness who may be thinking of ending their life. They include statements made by someone that others are better off if he or she were not around; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; not taking care of yourself; and giving away personal items. When these occur, talk to the person telling them that you care about them and are concerned for their well-being.

Adds Melinda Kulish, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist/Clinical Neuropsychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “There are also times when depression is not easily recognizable. Some people who are depressed experience it most acutely when by themselves but can appear fine, even quite happy, when they are with other people.”

Kulish explains that, for various reasons, some people feel the need to make others happy. Cheering others up or making others laugh makes them also feel happy.

“But, if that person is suffering from depression, the happiness is fleeting – the laughter ends and they once again feel empty and sad. The cheering up of others is a fix that is OUTSIDE, not inside of them.

“And drugs and alcohol can make them feel better for a time. The high always ends, and when alone, they feel empty and even more depressed,” says Kulish. “There’s really good research to suggest that talking about traumatic and upsetting events leads to much healthier responses. The old idea, ‘I’m just not going to talk about it so it’ll go away’ doesn’t work.”

“It’s a myth that if you ask a person if they are suicidal you will put that idea in their heads,” says Shea.

Feeling Low, a Place to Call

When this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers once said in a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the desperate and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its website.

Executive Director Panichas, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2014, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 4,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Art Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go tohttp://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll-free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For mental health resources, go to http://www.butler.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

Some Simple Resolutions Can Better Your Life

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 4, 2014

Every year we see the Times Square ball swiftly drop as a million or so revelers loudly count down to one at the stroke of midnight. Also, we traditionally make New Year Resolutions to accomplish in the coming year to perform acts of kindness and for self-improvement.

Making a resolution for positive change goes back for eons. According to Wikipedia, the act of making a resolution can be documented in Mesopotamia (the territory of modern-day Iraq). Babylonians made promises to their stone deities to start off a new year by returning borrowed goods and paying off debts.

The free internet encyclopedia also notes that the Romans even carried out this tradition by making promises to Janus, the God of beginnings and transitions (for whom the month January is named). Knights during the Medieval era, from the 5th to 15th century, took a “peacock vow” after the Christmas season to re-affirm their commitment to knightly virtues of honor, courtesy love and courtesy.

Wikipedia also reports that even “watch services” held late on New Year’s Eve, also provided an opportunity for Christian parishioners to review the past year and make confessions and prepare for the New Year by prayer. Even Judaism’s High Holidays, from Rosh Hashanah ending with Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, gives worshipers an opportunity to reflect on their wrongdoings over the year to seek forgiveness and to prepare for the upcoming year, adds the internet website.

Memorable New Year Resolutions

Zoe Mintz, of the International Business Times, posted her thoughts about New Year Resolutions just hours before 2014, on the New York-based digital global publication’s web. Like clockwork, many of the nation’s newspapers and magazines, including Mintz, printed articles detailing interesting, inspirational and unusual resolutions from prominent people, from movies stars (they usually tweet) artists, politicians, writers, and corporate leaders.

Mintz details some well-thought out New Year Resolutions from people who you may well know.

“Let our New Year’s resolution be this: We will be there for one another as fellow members of humanity, in the finest sense of the word.” — Goran Persson, served as Prime Minister of Sweden from 1996 to 2006

“New Year’s resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time.” — James Agate, British diarist and critic.

“I made no resolutions for the new year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.” — Anaïs Nin, an American author, ‘

“One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this: to rise above the little things.” — John Burroughs, an American naturalist and essayist important in the evolution of the U.S conservation movement.

“I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years.” — Henry Moore, an English sculptor and artist. He was best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures which are located around the world as public works of art

“What the New Year brings to you will depend a great deal on what you bring to the New Year.” — Vern McLellan, author of Wise Words and Quote.

“Follow your passions, believe in karma, and you won’t have to chase your dreams; they will come to you.” — Randy Pausch, American professor of computer science and human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is author of the “Last Lecture.”

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” — Mother Teresa, an Albanian-born, Indian Roman Catholic Religious Sister who founded the Missionaries of Charity which in 2012 consisted of over 4,500 sisters in 133 countries.

“If you asked me for my New Year resolution, it would be to find out who I am.” — Cyril Cusack, an Irish actor, who appeared in numerous films and television productions in a career lasting more than 70 years.

Everyday Resolutions

Resolutions may inspire or be a little bit ethereal, as detailed in the above listing compiled by Mintz. Simply put, our personal New Year’s resolutions help us cope with daily challenges to improve health, personal finances and relationships, that is to enhance our quality of life.

Many of your family and friends will be making their 2014 New Year’s resolutions to improve their health by eating healthy foods, losing weight or ratcheting up their exercise regimen. Everyone knows someone whose has made a resolution to either drink or smoke less, or not at all.

As the New Year approaches a person may say “Life’s too short,” when they begin to craft their personal resolutions. Attitude adjustments may well occur, when the person resolves to see “a glass half full rather than half empty,” making a commitment for the coming year to become a more positive person, one who looks forward to living life to the fullest. Even some may explore ways to reduce the stress in their lives.

A 2014 New Year resolution for others may just be to dig themselves out of credit card debt (cut those cards in half), regularly put money away for retirement, invest in the stock market or even to find a more satisfying job that pays better than their current one.

You might even see college students making their 2014 resolution to study harder to get that “A.” Some baby boomers and seniors may even chose to make this year the time to enroll at a local College or University to get a bachelor’s or graduate degree, or go to just learn new or sharpen up their existing skills.

For many, life may have become too routine and predictable, pushing them to schedule a trip to exotic places in the New Year. Some may choose to watch less television, committing to put their leisure time to a better use in 2014. One might resolve to become a volunteer at the local food kitchen, or helping the homeless, or even joining civic groups, like the Pawtucket Rotary Club or Lions club, or the Masons, to reach out to their community. Spending time helping those in need can also be a benefit for those volunteering – learning new skills, meeting new friends, advancing your career, or even improving mental and physical health.

New Year’s resolutions even help a person focus where their time, money and energy is directed. Everyone knows someone who is resolving to spend quality time in 2014 with family members. Some may even make resolutions to get engaged or married their long-time partner or to even begin a family.

With Christmas becoming so commercial, some may well make New Year resolutions that will push them away from materialistic pleasures, to exploring their spirituality.

Using Technology to Keep Resolutions

New technology can help keep us on track with keeping our 2014 New Year’s Resolutions. With the growing popularity of cell phones (iPhone and Android) thousands of self-help apps are now becoming available on app stores for IOS and Android cell phones, reports Business Reporter Victor Luckerson, in an article published on New Year’s Day on Time.com.

Luckerson details apps that will keep you on track with keeping your 2014 New Years resolutions. Here is a small sampling:

For learning the basics of a foreign language to prepare for a vacation, Duolingo helps you to quickly learn the basics. Users can easily review lessons in vocabulary, pronunciation, and basic grammar. Currently Duolingo offers lessons in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. Available for iPhone and Android.

MyQuitCoach was created to help you keep cigarettes at arms length. The app uses data to help people curb their bad habit by allowing users to input how often they smoke and when they have their cravings. This information allows short and long-term goals to be set, enabling the smoker to reduce their daily cigarette use. Tying results to both Facebook and Twitter can increase support from social media friends. Available for iPhone.

For those who require motivation to go to their neighborhood gym, MapMyFitness is just the app for you. The app tracks 600 different fitness activities, from running, to ballroom dancing, to even walking the dog. With this app you can even map out effective jogging routes. It even offers a social component that allows your friends to motivate you to exercise from within the app. Available for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

For resolutions to tighten your belt to improve your personal finances, check out DailyCost. The app easily allows you to closely check in going and outgoing money in all you bank accounts. Moreover, you can easily log in all your daily expenses, too, categorizing them within seconds. Weekly and monthly spending charts allow you to closely review where you spend your money. Available for iPhone.

Finally here’s an app to help you accomplish your resolution goals. Simply put, Lift helps you track how often you complete your tasks that you resolve to complete and rewards you with virtual check marks for achieving. Tasks can be drinking more water, praying, and other habits you want to change. App users who pursue the same goals can support each other via discussion groups. Available for iPhone and Android.

For this columnist, my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions (like many) revolve around health, financial and family. I resolve to become healthier by losing weight, eating healthier foods, and increasing my visits to the local YMCA; to get my financial house in order; and to spend more time with family and good friends. Maybe I might even write a book. As to my success, I will keep my fingers crossed.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.