Latimer: Mental illness comes out of the shadows

Although we don’t often hear about it, suicide takes a huge toll on our society.

The sudden death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams last week had people around the world grieving and reflecting. Tributes to his kindness, generosity and always his humour took the Internet by storm and thousands express their shock and sadness at the solitary struggles he faced.

Williams shared publicly about his long time struggles with addiction and depression. In the end, depression took his life as it does for too many.

If there is any silver lining to be found in this tragedy, perhaps it is how this very high profile suicide has brought mental illness out of the shadows.

Although we don’t often hear about it, suicide takes a huge toll on our society. Suicide is recognized as the leading cause of death by injury in North America – surpassing car accidents in 2012.  Suicide has increased dramatically in the last decade and most markedly among middle aged men and women. Today, nearly 30 out of every 100,000 American men in their 50s kill themselves.

We do not know why the numbers have increased so much in recent years. Speculation has suggested access to prescription drugs for poisoning, increased gun ownership and economic recession could play a role.

We do know the vast majority of suicides are committed by people experiencing untreated depression. We also know substance abuse is much more common among this group and can greatly increase the likelihood of suicide as it removes inhibition.

Effective treatments for depression are available. Usually, a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy (talk therapy designed to change negative thought patterns) and medication is recommended.

The truth is, depression and suicide do not play favourites. Mental illness can strike anyone regardless of their education, income or popularity. Illnesses such as depression are not the result of poor choices, parenting or a weak character. Just like other medical conditions, mental illness is a chronic, biological sickness. Depression affects roughly one in five people, often begins in late adolescence and can vary significantly in its severity.

Unfortunately, stigma often prevents people from seeking needed help. Many people with depression try for years to simply ‘get happy’. Often, substance abuse is a desperate attempt to stifle pain.

Depression is not something you can simply wish away. Feelings of hopelessness and despair are out of step with life events and can be completely overwhelming. Sometimes, the motivation required to even seek help is too much. In these cases, a concerned loved one may need to advocate on behalf of the depressed individual.

If you are feeling persistently sad and have thoughts of hurting yourself, reach out. Talk to a doctor, call a crisis hotline, speak with a trusted friend. Help is available and it can get better.


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