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Death of Robin Williams shows link between depression and suicide

Depression can be devastating, even if the person has wealth

Actress Pam Dawber,left, shares a laugh with actor Robin Williams as they pose for photographers before the annual American Museum of the Moving Image Tribute dinner in New York in this Feb. 23, 1995 file photo. Williams and Dawber starred in the TV show “Mork and Mindy.” Williams was found dead Mondya from an apparent suicide at his home in Northern California. He was 63. (Reuters)

Actress Pam Dawber,left, shares a laugh with actor Robin Williams as they pose for photographers before the annual American Museum of the Moving Image Tribute dinner in New York in this Feb. 23, 1995 file photo. Williams and Dawber starred in the TV show “Mork and Mindy.” Williams was found dead Mondya from an apparent suicide at his home in Northern California. He was 63. (Reuters)

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Actor Robin Williams poses for photographers to promote his new film “Jumanji” in London, in this file picture taken Feb. 14, 1996. Williams was found dead Monday from an apparent suicide at his home in Northern California. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — The death of brilliant comedian and actor Robin Williams shows how depression can devastate even someone with worldwide fame and success, mental health experts said Tuesday.

Williams, 63, died Monday of an apparent suicide. His publicist said Williams was battling severe depression. The actor who starred in such films as Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning, Vietnam had also struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse.

Last month, Williams went into rehab at Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, and was expected to stay there for several weeks.

His death “shows anybody can become suicidal, no matter how funny, comical and happy they may seem,’’ said Nadine Kaslow, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. “It shows that depression is a big risk factor for suicide.’’

The work of a comedian such as Williams, she said, “can be a cover for distress and pain underneath it.”

Suicide rates differ by age, gender and race, Kaslow said, with older white men at higher risk.

Kaslow said she hoped that Williams’ death leads more people into treatment for their illness.

The tools of psychotherapy and medication and substance abuse treatment “can be extremely helpful’’ in helping someone cope better and giving them hope, Kaslow said.

Dr. Bill Jacobs, an addiction medicine specialist at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, said Tuesday that Williams’ death “is not just about depression; it’s also about addiction.”

Abusing cocaine and alcohol over years “can really change [a person’s] brain,’’ Jacobs said.

Adding a depressant drug such as alcohol with depression symptoms “is a setup for bad things to happen,’’ he added. The risk of suicide is much higher for someone with a substance abuse problem, “especially with a co-occurring psychiatric disorder.”

Mental health consumer advocates in Georgia said Tuesday that they were shocked by Williams’ death.

“It shows you how serious depression really can be,’’ said Ellyn Jeager of Mental Health America of Georgia.

Depression can affect people of all economic classes, she said. “Money doesn’t determine whether or not you’re well.”

Jeager said Williams’ death underscores the importance of getting treatment.

She said the state of Georgia has a good suicide prevention program, through the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, but she added that it needs more funding.

Pat Strode of the Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that the science of mental illness has advanced significantly in the past decades, but that more progress needs to be made. “There’s still not enough information about these illnesses,’’ Strode said. “There’s not enough treatment.’’

What should people do if they suspect they have depression?

Strode said people need to know the symptoms, and then seek treatment if they recognize they have signs of the illness.

The severity, frequency, and duration of depression symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the signs and symptoms of depression include:

— Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings;

— Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism;

— Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness;

— Irritability, restlessness;

— Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex;

— Fatigue and decreased energy;

— Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions;

— Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping;

— Overeating, or appetite loss;

— Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts;

— Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.

If insured, people with depression symptoms should visit a doctor or mental health specialist with their health plan, Strode said. But if they don’t have insurance, they can get help through the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1 (800) 715-4225, she said.

Andy Miller is editor and founder of Georgia Health News.