The tragic loss of comedian Robin Williams to an apparent suicide once again focuses our collective awareness on why people take their own lives and what we can do to prevent it.
Roughly 40,000 Americans commit suicide each year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in our nation. Those 45 to 64 years old have the highest rate of suicide, and Robin Williams was among that age group. Suicide among males is 4 times more common than among females, largely because men typically use more lethal means.
Whenever a celebrity or popular political figure commits suicide, there is always the risk it will motivate someone who is thinking about killing themselves to actually do so. This is often called “the copycat effect”. How does this happen? All the factors are unclear, but we do know that intense media coverage of a celebrity suicide, as with Robin Williams, is correlated with risk of suicide among the general population. In other words, the copycat effect is real.
How can you tell if someone you care about is at risk of committing suicide? Again, there are no hard and fast rules, but we can be mindful of certain risk factors. If someone you are know is exhibiting any of these behaviors, there is cause for concern:
- Talking about wanting to die or how they’d be “better off dead”.
- Exploring how to commit suicide, such as online searches about methods, or talking about a specific plan for “how to do it”.
- Purchasing a firearm for no clear reason, such as hunting, self-defense, target shooting, etc. (most suicides by males involve a firearm).
- Hoarding medicines that could be used in a suicide attempt (more common in females).
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
- Suffering from a mental illness that is not well controlled by treatment, including depression, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and others.
- Talking about feeling trapped in life or being subject to unbearable emotional or physical pain.
- Feeling deeply humiliated or victimized.
- Talking about being a burden to others or that loved ones or family would be “better off if I was dead”.
- Increasing the use of alcohol or other psychoactive drugs to self-medicate for emotional distress. Alcohol abuse, in particular, is a risk factor for suicide. It further depresses mood and increases impulsive behavior.
- Behaving recklessly or in potentially self-destructive ways, and exhibiting poor impulse control in this regard.
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves, particularly if the person was very outgoing and socially involved previously.
- Recent and significant personal losses or challenges, including death of a loved one, job loss, financial troubles, serious legal issues, etc.
- Displaying extreme mood swings, particularly if the person is usually on a more even emotional keel.
- The person has one or more of these warning signs and made a prior suicide attempt.
Sometimes individuals who have expressed suicidal thoughts, or who seem very depressed or troubled, or who have previously attempted to kill themselves will suddenly seem “just fine”. A sudden and dramatic uptick in mood can sometimes be a warning sign that an individual has decided to kill themselves and is no longer conflicted about it. The person’s “should I or shouldn’t I?” struggle has been resolved and he or she is at peace with the decision to end it all.
If someone in your life has one or more of these risk factors and your intuition tells you to be worried, there is no harm in asking the question and expressing your concern in a supportive way. Inquiring about whether someone is suicidal or having self-destructive thoughts does not encourage them to act. In fact, it may help save a life.
Robin Williams’ apparent suicide is a major news event and may remain so for some time, particularly on social media. As such, through the copycat effect, the media coverage will likely increase the risk of suicide among those who are already susceptible. If someone like this is in your life, take action. Help is available.