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David Kessler Headshot

Suicide Is Closer Than You Think

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The world has lost comic genius Robin Williams. We are stunned and deeply saddened.

His representative said he was battling depression. Depression is the highest risk factor for suicide. We are left trying to make sense of this senseless death. The reality is that that's a hallmark of suicide -- loved ones are left with many questions that may never be answered.

There is so much stigma around suicide, you would be surprised how often it occurs and to whom. We typically think of the teen suicide or the younger adult, but those who are older complete suicide also. It's just more often covered up.

In my work, counseling countless people in grief, I regularly hear in hushed voices about how Uncle Mike's death was actually not cancer but suicide. And grandfather Joe's death wasn't really an accidental death. We lie a lot to keep the secret and try to avoid the shame. So many families have a secret suicide. Your work place has a secret suicide.

Unfortunately, suicides occur every 13 minutes to 65 minutes depending on the statistics. Some reports say suicide deaths outnumber murders 5 to 3, but we more often hear about the murders and not the suicides. What we know is that we now have yet another sad wake up call.

Every time someone is public about suicide, it's a powerful teachable moment for all of us. While we can talk about Robin's suicide, can we talk about our own loved one that died by suicide? While Robin's suicide is being handled so compassionately, we fear our loved ones suicide will be judged. Grief should be a no judgment zone, no matter how it happened.

We also all need to do our part to help those left in the wake the suicide not have to deal with the stigma on top of the loss. The loss alone is bad enough.

Those left in the wake of suicide need our support, not our judgment. And that begins with understanding. Here are three important ideas to know about suicide:

1. Loved ones are not responsible. They are not superhuman and cannot stop a suicide if a person is determined to take his or her own life.

2. Don't look for the "one thing" that did it. Mental illness is complex and it's as real as diabetes. Suicide is not just situational -- it is about how we process life.

3. Get and give help. The stigma around mental illness often prevents loved ones from asking for help and it sometimes prevents other people in their life from giving help.

If you don't know what to say to someone who lost a loved one to suicide, try "I am here with you" or "I am sorry for your loss." Start there.

To that end, we in the healthcare world are attempting to change the language around suicide. The words "committed" or "attempted" only criminalize mental illness. The saying it was "a successful attempt" leaves a sense that the act is to be congratulated. Instead, the new terminology is a "completed" suicide or "not completed" suicide or the person "died by suicide." No matter what it is, called it is one of life's worst tragedies.

Robin Williams is someone we all loved. If it can happen to him, it can happen to someone we know and probably did.

In grief we don't want to remember someone strictly with pain at the end. We want to honor him by honoring others that are dealing with suicide. For Robin, we want to remember the love and the life...and the laughter. Robin Williams' death is not only a tragic loss for his family but for all he made laugh. Thank you, Robin.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.