In the wake of the recent suicide by actor and comedian Robin Williams, many Fresno organizations are taking part in an effort to spread awareness and empathy for mental health and depression.
Less than 24 hours after the news of Williams’ death, the Fresno State Healthy Peer Ambassadors of Wellness (PAWS) organization released a statement in support of Williams’ family and providing details for where and how to get help on campus through the Fresno State Health Center. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is a disease that affects nearly one in 15 American adults.
“We were more focused on wanting to make sure that those individuals who were triggered by Williams’ suicide had resources available to them,” said Melissa Norris, special projects coordinator and adviser for PAWS. “We know that for those who have suffered a loss or who have been in a deep situation, it could trigger those painful thoughts.”
Williams, an actor who starred in more than 50 films throughout his career including “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Good Will Hunting,” and “Aladdin,” also suffered an open struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. He had been seeking help at the time of his death.
“I think the Robin Williams’ case gives people the opportunity to talk about it,” said Leann Gouveia, executive director of Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss. “He was so well liked. Everyone knew him. He was so good at what he did. I felt like he was my uncle.”
Gouveia also explained that in the passing of such a high-profile actor, questions of how someone with wealth, fame and access to so many resources could choose to end his life in such a manner.
“Anyone can be depressed at any time,” Gouviea said. “Ninety percent of people who take their lives are suffering from a diagnosable depressive disorder. It’s a disease no different than cancer or diabetes in its worst form, and it can be treated.”
Dr. Christine Edmondson, of Fresno State’s Department of Psychology, spoke about the social stigma associated with mental illness. She said the historical stigma toward mental illness “continues even now.”
“We have stigma that affects our whole mental health service system,” Edmondson said. “Our unwillingness to talk about it, our unwillingness to look at the biological factors, contributes to that.”
What many activists are attempting to promote, however, is a desire to foster a new dialogue and exchange within the system.
“What this can do is provide people with hope,” Gouveia said. “This guy seemed just like me, just like the guy next door, and this opens a door for discussion. People are likely to understand it better because people connected with him [Williams]. They’ll listen.”
While Williams’ case may act as conduit for communication, high media attention may also cause suicidal ideation amongst those who are already suffering, portraying suicide as a means to an end or a “freeing” experience, rather than a permanent end to an often treatable disease.
“What happens with people who are suicidal is that their pain becomes greater than the ability to cope,” Gouveia said. “When the pain becomes great, you get desperate. It’s that desperation that leads people to do things they wouldn’t normally do.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young adults aged 18-24 and is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation.
“Some of the hardest words that you could ever say are ‘I need help’,” Gouveia said. “We tend to suffer inside because we don’t want to burden anyone else with our problems. But we do need to talk about it, and we do need to have a plan for it.”
Edmondson also said that students should prepare themselves for the challenges ahead as they return to school. She explained students are often at an increased risk for depression due to several shifts throughout young adulthood she called “psychosocial developmental transitions.”
“Young adulthood is the time where you leave home and establish yourself in your work life, as well as your romantic life, really setting the stage for the rest of your life, which is associated with what we call developmental stress,” Edmondson said.
“It’s important that we recognize, be aware and ask,” Gouveia said. “It’s OK to ask about suicide. Not talking about it is the thing that causes it to happen.”
Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss will be hosting its 12th Annual Fun Run/Walk Saturday, Sept. 27 to commemorate those who have lost loved ones, as well as raise awareness about suicide prevention. A special Robin Williams team has also been set up for the event to commemorate the actor and his life.