“It Can Touch Anybody:” Suicide in Focus Following Robin Williams' Death

Vermont's Department of Mental Health hopes more people see suicide as preventable

The news this week that popular performer Robin Williams ended his own life by hanging at age 63 has refocused the attention of many people on the topics of depression and suicide prevention. Williams had been seeking treatment for depression, law enforcement officials near San Francisco said Tuesday. They would not say whether Williams left a suicide note.

Cathy Lamberton, a business leader with the Associated General Contractors of Vermont who lost her 19-year-old son Logan to suicide, hopes Williams' death brings the issue of suicide out of the shadows. She said she believes it has often been only whispered about because it's an issue that makes many uncomfortable. "I hope that this nation starts focusing a little more on depression and mental health illnesses and understanding that more," Lamberton told New England Cable News.

Lamberton said her son’s memory continues to be an important part of her life. He chose to end his own life more than four years ago, she said. "He was definitely an amazing boy," she remembered. "My son was the most vibrant person on the outside."

Lamberton said outward appearances can be deceiving, and even though her son seemed popular and gregarious, he battled depression and mental health issues. "He talked to a psychiatrist, we went the prescription drug route; he and I talked about the way he was feeling," Lamberton remembered. "But he could not see beyond that moment."

Last year, 108 Vermont residents died by suicide, according to state vital statistics numbers. Folks of all ages chose to end their own lives, the data showed, though a majority of them were men.

The number of suicides per-capita in Vermont has made the state’s suicide rate higher than the national average since 2000, according to numbers from the Vermont Department of Health. In 2010, for example, there were 15.8 suicide deaths in Vermont per 100,000 population, compared to a national average of 12.1 suicide deaths that year.

"Suicide is a huge public health problem," said Charlie Biss of Vermont's Department of Mental Health.

Biss pointed out in a small state, a few suicide deaths can skew the numbers in a significant way, but said regardless of how many suicide deaths there are in Vermont, it is too many. Biss said he believes the state can bring down its suicide numbers, starting with more public awareness.

"Suicide is preventable," Biss told NECN. "It's something that we can, the more we get to know about it, the more we treat it as a condition, the more we reach many people in our state and across the nation who experience either ideation or making a plan or even attempting-- we can help them, and we can dissuade their actions."

Biss said some people who choose to end their lives are actually sort of ambivalent about it, and if reached with an appropriate tone, can be shown positive alternatives. "It's very invisible, and it's very internal," Biss observed.

He suggested we all pay close attention to behavior changes in our closest friends and relatives, and not be shy about reaching out and connecting with them. Biss explained that folks considering suicide may benefit from that contact and caring; that sense that not all's hopeless. "They're often looking for connectedness," Biss added.

Biss pointed to the national suicide prevention lifeline of 1-800-273-TALK as a resource for people to get help.

The Vermont Department of Health also maintains a section of its web page dedicated to suicide prevention. To access that information, click here.

Cathy Lamberton said she will certainly keep urging others to talk openly about mental illness, depression, and suicide, hoping health policy makers will, too. "My wish is that people understand it better so maybe they can prevent it in the future," she said.

Lamberton offers motivational speaking and participates in other events dedicated to suicide awareness. More information on that is available on her website.

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