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.
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.
Sleeping too little or too much.
Acting withdrawn or feeling isolated.
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
Displaying extreme mood swings.
White said making arrangements for after one’s death and giving away possessions are other warning signs.
If you are worried about a friend or loved one’s mental health and fear they may be contemplating suicide, first ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
If the answer is yes, or you think the answer is yes, White said, the next step is to dial 211, the state’s hotline that is part of the national network, (800) 273-8255 (TALK).
Since a fourth of Oklahoma suicides are among military veterans or those currently serving, the network offers specialists to help the veterans. Specialists are also on staff to help teens.
Access to care is one of the biggest obstacles to fighting the mental health and substance abuse battle.
Even with good insurance coverage, psychiatrist and psychologist visits are pricey. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has only the resources to serve those without insurance, and two-thirds of those people go untreated.
Adults should talk to their children about these issues, White said. Depression often appears in the late teens and early adulthood, so early treatment can make a big difference in outcome.
Businesses need to make sure their employees are covered for mental health and substance abuse treatments.
And people can take further action by talking to community leaders, policymakers and those who make a difference.
“We want to have healthy brains in Oklahoma so we can have the best educated Oklahomans, the best workforce possible and put our best foot forward for our families,” White said.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline at (800) 273-8255.