The Death of Robin Williams and Why It Matters

Monday, August 18, 2014

The recent death of actor Robin Williams left many of us saddened and confused. Here was a man who seemed to have it all; fame, fortune, adoring fans and family. And yet, the deep dark plague that is depression gripped him so hard he felt he had no other option but to end his life.  Sadly, those left behind can’t help but wonder, what did we miss, how did it get to this point, and what didn’t we do?

These questions are also asked by many military family members who have lost a loved one from suicide. According to the Military Suicide Report more than 100,000 veterans and active military have died from suicide between Sept. 11, 2001 and September 15, 2013. And the numbers seem to get worse when you add military family members.  Anecdotal information shared with media outlets about spouses, children, siblings and parents of service members taking their own life has bolstered military family advocacy groups to push hard for accountability and recently the Pentagon's Defense Suicide Prevention Office has sent a report to Congress detailing for the first time a proposal for tracking those deaths. 

But numbers and reports can’t bring back a loved one nor stop those struggling with depression or PTSD who are intent on ending their lives. So what can be done?

First and foremost, recognize that depression is a debilitating disease that can end in death. No amount of “snap out of it”, or “it will get better” truly helps a person overcome their symptoms.

Second, recognize the signs of depression and the difference between “being in a funk” and really suffering from this disease.  According to the Mayo Clinic, when someone is going through a depressive episode symptoms occur most of the day, nearly every day, Find a full list of symptoms here .

Third, know your resources. The Department of Defense has spent millions of dollars on suicide prevention programs and education. But those programs can’t help someone if they are not utilized. Many times, it will be you, the family member who will be doing the research and finding the appropriate connections. Be equipped with answers when a loved one reaches out.

Resources such as the Real Warriors CampaignVets4WarriorsThe National Center for Health & Technology (T2), all have proven records of success but don’t overlook medical and spiritual support. Medication, therapy, and meditation all seem to be powerful tools against depression.

And fourth, understand who may be at a higher risk for suicide. A recent USA Today article cites that suicide risk among soldiers may be rooted in their past.  Experiencing childhood abuse, being sexually victimized, and exhibiting suicidal behavior before enlisting are significant risk factors for suicide. And yet for some soldiers, having a rough start in life was precisely the reason they joined the military. Programs such as the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier and family Fitness (CSF2) provide numerous resources to increase resilience and decrease stress. Robin Williams was a gifted and funny man. He generously shared that gift with tens of thousands of troops through his USO show appearances, but in the end, it is his silenced voice that might be his greatest legacy.