Health

Saturday, Aug 16 2014 04:00 PM

Death of Robin Williams boosts calls for help

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    By AP Photo/Reed Saxon

    This June 15, 2007 file photo shows actor and comedian Robin Williams posing to promote his film, "License To Wed" in Santa Monica, Calif. Williams, whose free-form comedy and adept impressions dazzled audiences for decades, has died in an apparent suicide. He was 63. The Marin County Sheriff's Office said Williams was pronounced dead at his home in California on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. The sheriff's office said a preliminary investigation showed the cause of death to be a suicide due to asphyxia.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

It's hard to imagine anything good could come from the heartbreaking death of actor and comic Robin Williams, but there is one silver lining.

Calls to crisis hotlines set up to prevent suicide have surged nationwide, including locally, since the stunning news that Williams had apparently killed himself.

Related Info

RESOURCES

* Kern County Mental Health Crisis Line: 800-991-5272.

* Bakersfield College Student Health Center: 395-4336.

* Cal State Bakersfield Student Health Services: 654-2394.

* American Association of Suicidology, for statistics and research:

www.suicidology.org

* Suicide Prevention Advisory and Resource Council, training for counselors, educators and others involved in local prevention efforts: 868-8007.

* Fresh Hope, a faith-based support group for the mentally ill and their families, meets 7 p.m. Thursdays at Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church, 7001 Auburn St. 871-1150

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Williams was found dead in his northern California home on Monday, and the preliminary findings of an ongoing investigation have cited the cause of death as asphyxia by hanging.

His wife released a statement Thursday that revealed the beloved actor was battling depression, anxiety and the early stages of Parkinson's disease.

Mental health workers around the country reported an uptick in calls to crisis hotlines last week. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw the highest number of calls in its history the day after Williams' death was announced.

Locally, the Kern County Mental Health Department said calls to its crisis line rose 57 percent from 60 on the Wednesday before Williams died to 94 on the Wednesday after.

"We started getting calls as soon as Tuesday afternoon from people who started out wanting to talk about Robin Williams. They just couldn't believe someone who was wealthy and famous and beloved could do that," said Meghan Boaz Alvarez, supervisor of the Kern County Mental Health crisis line. "By the end of the call, they confess to feeling suicidal and say if he couldn't beat this with all his resources, how am I going to get through it?"

The local hotline is also getting calls from people who are concerned about a friend or relative, said Ellen Eggert, a substance abuse specialist and suicide prevention educator.

Counselors are advising such callers to express their concern out loud to the person they're worried about. Don't be afraid to bring it up, Eggert said, because "you can't put the idea of suicide in somebody's head."

It may take a couple of tries to get the person to be candid with you, Eggert added.

"Most people won't tell you they're thinking about suicide because they don't want to be labelled crazy and they don't want to be judged," she said. "They might deny it at first, but when they finally admit it, 99 percent of the time they'll be relieved that you asked."

Completed suicides in Kern County have been hovering near 100 a year for the past five years, according to the coroner's section of the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

There were 119 last year, up from 93 in 2012.

Nationwide, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, cutting short 38,285 lives in 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It's a major problem among young adults. On college campuses, suicide is the nation's second leading cause of death.

Bakersfield College's student health center is adding a second counselor this fall because demand was so high last year that some students had to wait up to a month for an appointment.

The college does outreach on campus to advertise the center's services, and also works with primary care physicians to generate referrals.

"A lot of times people don't necessarily go see a mental health professional when they're having problems, but they will go see a doctor," said licensed clinical social worker Edie Warkenein.

College can be a difficult time for young people who often are making major life decisions while juggling school, work and possibly families of their own if they're older nontraditional students, Warkenein said.

The Rev. Dale Rose of Canyon Hills Assembly of God Church in Bakersfield said he's grateful for the timing of the church's new ministry to assist the mentally ill and their families.

Kern County's first chapter of Fresh Hope, a network of faith-based support groups, just launched nine weeks ago offering weekly peer support meetings, educational opportunities and online forums.

"About one out of four people has been affected by a mood disorder, and the first place many of them go to is the church, but churches in general have just ignored the issue or at best made a referral somewhere. There's just nothing out there," Rose said.

The pastor's son, who died recently of natural causes, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. As a result, Rose is particularly sensitive to the stresses families dealing with mental illness face and is pleased to see those challenges enter the nation's consciousness.

"I've seen a lot of discussion about Robin Williams in the Christian community on Facebook and so on, both good and bad," he said. "But at least it's out there and people are talking."

Crisis hotline supervisor Boaz Alvarez is also happy about the dialogue, if not what motivated it.

Williams was in the demographic that makes up the greatest proportion of suicide deaths in California, older white men, and the attention has created an opportunity to reach out to them, in particular, she said.

"The one thing we worry about with these high-profile cases is copy cats," Boaz Alvarez said. "But any time somebody calls us who maybe would not have called otherwise, that's really good news. We want people to call. We want them to get the right resources and referrals to where to go for help."

That's some solace to the survivors Williams left behind, said his wife, Susan Schneider, in Thursday's statement.

"It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid," she said.

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