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Robin Williams

Robin Williams in his last role as Teddy Roosevelt

I suspect I wasn’t the only person who teared up when the Teddy Roosevelt statue came to life in the last “Night at the Museum” film.

Critics said the late Robin Williams turned the rough-riding president into an on-screen “father figure” for the rowdy crew of cave men, dinosaurs, cowboys, and gladiators who rode rough through the series of crazy comedy films. The role was Williams’ last; he committed suicide by hanging in his home on August 11 last year.

Williams “neither confirmed nor denied” having bipolar disorder. I can’t imagine that anyone who knows bipolar was uncertain that Robin Williams depended on bipolar for the verbal velocity that fueled his comedy.

We’ll Never Know Why Williams Committed Suicide

I doubt we’ll ever understand what happened to Robin Williams. We know he committed suicide. We don’t understand why. We know that he used alcohol and cocaine at various times in his life the way people do who need to manage bipolar symptoms but aren’t willing to be held back by the mind-numbing side-effects of most meds. We heard that he’d been diagnosed about three years before with Parkinson’s and had started a new medication in May.

The night before he died, he stuffed several watches into a sock and carried them to a friend for safekeeping. Paranoia? The “typical” suicide’s presentation of cherished items to a loved one? His death showed signs of agitation and impulsiveness: he cut himself with a pocket knife before fastening a canvas belt in place to hang himself. We were left to wonder if he despaired because of the diagnosis he’d been living with, or if the new medication turned out to be one of those that deserves a “black box” warning. When the autopsy reports came out in November, we learned that Williams had been taking two antidepressants (Mirtazapene and Seroquel) as well as the Parkinson’s medication. Taking antidepressants without mood stabilizers generally precipitates mania in people with bipolar disorder, and manic energy on top of depression’s lack of hope can be a fatal combination.

Suicide: A Top 10 Cause of Death in US

Suicide has been a top 10 cause of death in the U.S. since 2008. More people die from suicide than from:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Prostate cancer
  • Homicide

More than 20 active duty military or US military veterans die from suicide every day. The number of Americans who die by suicide is within 10 people of the number who die from breast cancer each year. Suicide should be treated as the public health crisis it is. Preventing suicide deserves the same investment in engineering that has reduced auto accidents (in that case, airbags; in this case, higher railings on some bridges). It deserves the same medical research, public education and anti-stigma drives that have dramatically reduced the death rate from HIV/AIDS.

Christians Aren’t Immune from Suicide

People in Christian churches are not immune from overwhelming despair. One of our great hymnodists, William Cowper, made three suicide attempts and spent time in what his age knew as an “insane asylum.” The people I’ve known who have made attempts or killed themselves by suicide include a church sexton, a member of a church pastored by friends, and a member of a church planting team.

People with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are more likely than others to attempt suicide and to succeed. Statistics put the suicide risk for people with schizophrenia at 10-13 percent; for people with bipolar the risk exceeds 17 percent. In both illnesses, the risk of suicide is higher among younger adults. This may indicate inadequately managed new diagnoses or not yet diagnosed illnesses.

If you know someone who is feeling hopeless, or if you are feeling hopeless, the national suicide prevention lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. You can learn more at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you go through bouts of hopelessness from time to time, code the number in on your cell: maybe name it “NHL” for “National HotLine.” That way, you can always access the number quickly. Talking with these quality, trained volunteers is a smart way to stop for a minute and think more clearly about what you might not really need to do.