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My Turn: Stigma a formidable foe in treating mental illness

In many ways, Robin Williams was the whole package: a frenetic and energetic character able to make you giggle at the absurdity he was capable of, an established comedic actor who had so many memorable lines.

I am drawn immediately to “Goooooooood morning, Vietnam! It’s 0600 hours. What does the ‘O’ stand for? O my God, it’s early!” And later on in his mellower stage, his Oscar winning performance as psychologist Sean Maquire in Good Will Hunting. If the “It’s not your fault, Will” speech didn’t make you cry, you were not paying attention.

It was well known that beneath all these immense talents there was a human being who suffered his whole life with depression and addiction. The sympathy and outpouring of grief in social media has been overwhelming over the past few days, and so it should be. After all, Robin Williams was one of those people who you kind of thought you knew.

The fact is that one in four people suffers with depression in this country, and some of the other statistics serve to humble those who work with people with mental illness.

Completed suicide accounts for the third leading cause of death between population aged 10 to 24. Among all age groups and both sexes, it is the 10th leading cause of death.

Information gained from meta-analysis of psychological autopsies shows that approximately 50 percent of those who complete suicide do so at the first attempt. Fifty percent of those who complete have never been in therapy, and 75 percent of completers communicated thoughts about death or suicide to several people over a period of weeks to months before dying.

You are four times more likely to complete suicide if you are male. Sixty percent of deaths by suicide are with a firearm and 14 percent by hanging.

One is forced to ask the questions: “Why is it that many people are reluctant to reach out for help when they are feeling depressed?” and “Why are we so bad at hearing the distress that people with depression are vocalizing?”

There are no easy answers when it comes to the human mind. Our federal government has invested millions into the future to investigate how it works and recently MIT and Harvard were given a record gift of $650 million to propel psychiatric research toward a cure for mental illness.

People are paying attention, but there is something we can all do that will help enormously. Be mindful of the stigma that accompanies mental illness, and be careful with our language. If one in four of us suffer with mental illness, when you are careless with your words you will hurt someone.

And we should listen to our friends and loved ones and offer support and intervention when we hear distress. Please do all you can to stamp out stigma in our community.

(Peter Evers is CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health Center.)

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