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The Personal Impact of the Death of a Public Figure

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Like many of you I found myself shocked and dismayed with the recent death of Robin Williams. He was a public figure who made us laugh, showed us that humor and silliness is an acceptable way to understand the world, and he helped us reflect on critical social issues like war and social pressures in a way that encouraged our human compassion. I’m not sure about you, but he touched my life in ways that I was not even aware of, and over the past 24 hours I have realized that his impact was felt by thousands of people; it has felt like the entire country, and perhaps world, is mourning the loss of this man. This led me to be curious about what we have seen with the death of other public figures, and what we can learn to help ourselves and the people we love.

Research out of the University of North Carolina authored by Jessica Gall Myrick, Seth Noar, Jessica Fitts Willoughby and Jennifer Brown found that the death of Apple Founder Steve Jobs had a phenomenal impact on individuals, medical community, and families. They found that a window of opportunity exists where people want to understand how the public figure died; what were the causes, warning signs, and interventions that were done or could have been done. This window is what we call a “teachable moment.” In a study done after the death of Princess Diana’s death and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry [2000 Nov; 177:463-6], this teachable moment was also observed with questions about depression, self-harm behaviors and prevention. In fact, the study found an increase in individuals seeking assistance, as the loss of Diana exacerbated their own feelings of distress.

With the passing of Robin Williams, we now have another “teachable moment” to better understand depression, persistent mental illness, and suicide. Here are some facts that are important to know:

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. This may be accompanied by thoughts of suicide or self-harming behaviors.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. Diminished interest in hobbies, pastimes, social activities, or sex. You’ve lost your ability to feel joy and pleasure.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month.
  • Sleep changes. Either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours of the morning, or oversleeping (also known as hypersomnia).
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your tolerance level is low, your temper short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Your whole body may feel heavy, and even small tasks are exhausting or take longer to complete.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes.
  • Reckless behavior. You engage in escapist behavior such as substance abuse, compulsive gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things.
  • Unexplained aches and pains. An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.

Depression varies from person to person, but these are some common signs and symptoms. It’s important to remember that these symptoms can be part of life’s normal lows. But the more symptoms you have, the stronger they are, and the longer they’ve lasted—the more likely it is that you’re dealing with depression. When these symptoms are overwhelming and disabling, that’s when it’s time to seek help.

Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. Thoughts of death or suicide are a serious symptom of depression. It is crucial to consider any talk or intimation about suicide seriously. It’s not just a warning sign that the person is thinking about suicide: it’s a cry for help.

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Talking about killing or harming oneself
  • Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
  • An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
  • Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights)
  • Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
  • Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
  • Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
  • A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy

In San Diego resources are plentiful to find help. It’sUPtoUS Is an excellent resource to begin raising questions for yourself or someone else; a chat line, immediate access to mental health providers, and more information about depression and suicide prevention can be found with ease. Additionally, in emergency situations phoning 911 will provide emergency personnel who are trained to intervene and act when an individual is posing a danger to themselves or others. And lastly, seeking a mental health provider to help manage depression before it becomes acute is always the desired first step.

Depression can be a “normal” reaction to an unexpected life event, or it can be an indicator of a more pervasive mental health issue. Regardless, working with a professional who can help you navigate this difficult period will have you feeling less alone and more understood. A big part of your strength is knowing that resources are available to you. Don’t wait until it’s too late – asking for help is always a good thing.

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