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Robin Williams' death prompts discussion in Oklahoma on mental illness, substance abuse

Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Terri White says you can save a person’s life by being brave enough to ask a simple, yet difficult question.
by Heather Warlick Modified: August 13, 2014 at 11:00 am •  Published: August 12, 2014

You might save a person’s life by being brave enough to ask a difficult question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

Depression and suicide are in the news following the death of actor Robin Williams, who had self-divulged struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.

Williams was found dead Monday in his California home. He hanged himself in his bedroom using a leather belt, officials said.

If someone had asked the 600 Oklahomans who kill themselves every year that difficult question, it’s likely many would still be alive, said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. More people die of suicide every year in Oklahoma than in car crashes, she said.

People don’t often ask “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” It’s too awkward, too personal. But we need to learn to ask, she said. Since 22 percent of Oklahomans have a mental illness, it’s a pressing health issue.

Many people who are mentally ill have a co-existing substance abuse problem. Often, drug use calms the pain inside caused by mental illness, White said.

Williams admitted to having problems with cocaine and alcohol, and his publicist said the actor had been struggling with chronic depression.

“We’re talking about people who feel like they don’t see another way out. They’ve lost hope and they feel like it will be less of a burden to everyone else around them,” White said.

Some describe the act as selfish, but White said selfishness isn’t the motivation for most people considering suicide.

“It’s actually not about being selfish. These people feel there is no other way out and they think it will be less of a burden to their family.”

Suicide is preventable, she said. There are warning signs, just as in any other disease of a major bodily organ.

Some warning signs, listed on save.org:

Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.

Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun.

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

Talking about being a burden to others.

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by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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