Coping with LossTuesday 12 August 2014 11.06 By Fergal Bowers
The death of the much-loved actor Robin Williams by apparent suicide will be a source a great sadness to many in Ireland and around the world.
It may also affect those currently suffering from depression here, people just trying to cope and those in recovery from related illnesses.
Robin Williams was an outstanding performer and known across generations and so his death not only affects his family but also those who never knew him.
In that sense, it will generate sadness around the world.
His appeal was to children and adults in different ways and so both will have questions today.
For families and individuals bereaved by suicide, and those affected by an attempted suicide, the news about the actor’s death will have a special poignancy.
At this time, people will undoubtedly ask how someone with such a gift for humour, blazing comedy and so loved, could apparently countenance taking his own life.
He had suffered recently from severe depression and acknowledged himself to have had problems with alcohol and drugs, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.
He had also received treatment and had relapsed.
At this time in the US, the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Coroner Division suspects the death to be a suicide but a comprehensive investigation must be completed before a final determination is made.
An investigation into the cause, manner and circumstances of the death is currently under way and a forensic examination will take place, with toxicology tests to take place later.
At this time, we do not have all of the facts.
As is the case with suicide, one may never fully know why it happened.
In suicide, the death is personal to each person’s circumstances.
During this time of profound grief, the words from his wife Susan Schneider are important: “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”
And those moments will live on in his wonderful performances, in many great films, such as Good Will Hunting, Mrs Doubtfire, The Birdcage and Good Morning Vietnam - and who could forget Mork & Mindy where it mostly all started.
The death by suicide of a well-known person can have an impact on others suffering from depression and other conditions.
It is important to understand that suicide is a complex and difficult issue and there may be many reasons why someone may decide to end their life.
Speculation helps no-one.
We already know that Robin Williams had mental health and alcohol issues and these are factors in suicide and attempted suicide.
But there can be other factors too.
The death by suicide of a well-known personality has a wider impact, as it is covered across the world and often in different ways.
Robin Williams’ death will be the subject of much debate and discussion in the media over the coming days and weeks.
It is important to provide support to vulnerable people who may be affected by his death and the issues that may be raised by coverage, which may be sensitive or insensitive to the issue of suicide.
Remember the deaths and coverage of Marlyn Monroe in 1962 and Kurt Cobain in 1994 who both ended their own lives?
Specialists have studied the impact of the coverage of the suicides of well-known personalities, whether calls to support services increase at these times and to what extent some deaths may prompt so-called copy-cat suicides.
The death of Robin Williams may also provoke positive debate about the issues around suicide and gaps in prevention services for people at risk in Ireland.
Perhaps the most important message at this time is that there is help for people suffering from depression and who are at risk.
That’s what the health service is there for and the first point of contact should be the family doctor.
Families should never be afraid to talk about the subject, or approach someone who appears to be unwell and may need help.
One in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some time in our lives.
Treatment is available and people can and do recover.
Remember Robin Williams playing Dr Hunter ‘Patch’ Adams, when he said: “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I’ll guarantee you’ll win.”
Ireland has a high rate of suicide and many families have been affected by the death of a loved one.
At this time we should especially remember people bereaved by suicide.
There are many support organisations in Ireland for people affected by this difficult subject.
Here are some helplines but there are many others dealing with specific areas with contact details easily available on the internet.
Samaritans 116123 | 1Life 1800 24 7 100 | Console 1800 247 247 | Aware 1890 303 302
* Fergal Bowers is RTÉ’s Health Correspondent & the author of Suicide in Ireland (1994)