Robin Williams’ death from an apparent suicide has the nation talking about a public health problem we often avoid.
Suicide now claims more American lives each year than car crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 100 people die from suicide every day in the U.S.
Amid the overall rise in suicides nationally — totaling 38,364 in 2010 — one group stands out in stark relief: the middle-aged. The suicide rate jumped nearly 50 percent among those aged 50 to 59 since 1999. More broadly, the rate increased 28 percent among those aged 35 to 64.
Men take their own lives three times more often than women, the figures show.
Williams, who battled depression and substance abuse, was 63.
He was one of a kind, a gifted comedian and actor whose life amounts to far more than a statistic. But with his death, he joins the ranks of a growing population of older Americans ending their lives by suicide.
In Maine, which has a history of high suicide rates among youth, the troubling trend has also appeared among older adults, according to Greg Marley, clinical director for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“That’s definitely true in Maine, where the rate of suicide really peaks around age 50,” he said.
The economic recession affected many Americans during their older working years, especially men in professional and highly-skilled jobs, Marley said.
“In men, unemployment is a risk factor for suicide,” he said.
Public health experts also speculate that opiate pain medications, which have exploded in use, may play a role. Intentionally overdosing on the drugs — which are often prescribed to treat chronic pain, a major contributor to disability in middle age — can be fatal.
In their later years, many people are also asking themselves hard questions about life, said Marley, a baby boomer himself.
“We’re getting to that stage in life when we say, OK, am I pleased with where I am and what I’m doing?” he said. “Do I have a sense that I have offered something to the world, or do I have a sense of despair over that? Suicide and despair are closely linked.”
Loss of a job, a divorce, or legal problems can trigger suicidal thoughts, but rarely serve as a singular cause, Marley explained. Suicides typically occur among those already facing mental illness and, in many cases, substance abuse.
Experts describe suicide as an act of a troubled person struggling to deal with complex circumstances.
“Suicide does not come like lightning out of a clear blue sky,” Marley said.
In 2011, Maine lost 224 individuals to suicide. Most experienced a loss of hope, a sense of isolation, and an inability to see any other alternative.
“Almost invariably people begin showing signs,” Marley said. “They’re isolating, their mood has gone down, they’re making statements that reflect hopelessness, that reflect thoughts of death, thoughts of suicide.”
What can any of us do? Don’t ignore the signs. Ask questions and engage your loved one with professional help if they need it, Marley said.
“Suicide is preventable and it’s up to all of us — not just the psychiatrists and the clinical social workers and the emergency departments — but all of us,” he said. “In our families, in our co-workers, in our friendships we can stop a suicide by connecting with that person and getting them the help they need.”
Warning signs of suicide
The Maine Suicide Prevention Program offers this guidance:
Call 9-1-1 or seek immediate help from a mental health provider if you observe any one of these behaviors:
- Someone threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Someone looking for ways to kill themselves: seeking access to pills, weapons, or other means;
- Someone talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide
These behaviors may indicate someone at risk of suicide:
- Rage, anger, seeking revenge
- Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities seemingly without thinking
- Feeling trapped
- Increasing alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from friends, family or society
- Anxiety, agitation, inability to sleep or sleeping all the time
- Dramatic mood changes
- No sense of purpose in life
Talking about suicide
How can you encourage a loved one to open up about thoughts of suicide? More advice from the Maine Suicide Prevention Program:
- Take all talk or hints of suicide seriously
- Listen with concern, caring and respect
- Do not judge, lecture, discount or criticize
- Offer hope in any way possible
- Ask directly about suicidal thoughts and plans
- Never keep suicidal behavior a secret even if the person asks you to
- Assist in finding help and support
- Do not leave a suicidal person alone; be sure that firearms, pills, rope are not available
- Call a mental health professional or crisis services. For children and youth, contact parents and another adult trusted by the child.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call the statewide toll-free 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. If you need immediate help, dial 911.