It's a tragedy when people take their own lives. But when someone of comedian Robin Williams' stature commits suicide, it is so much worse.
Not because his death matters more than that of anyone else — it doesn't — but because of how it may affect people also suffering from mental illness and at risk for suicide.
Suicide prevention experts note that in the weeks following the death of famous people, suicides will spike between 2% and 12%. It's a contagion of sorts in that the news of one high-profile suicide will infect others struggling with the same demons.
Here in Fresno, the effects of Williams' suicide were immediate.
"Our call volume increased (Monday) night," said Barbara Breen, suicide prevention program manager for Kings View Behavioral Health System, which provides the Central Valley Suicide Prevention hotline.
She went on to tell The Bee's Ron Orozco in a story published Wednesday: "Our biggest concern is that because Robin Williams died by suicide, it will leave people who have the ideation that that's OK. We were worried about that."
Though wealthy and beloved by the public, Williams grappled with depression and substance abuse much of his life. After actor John Belushi died of a heroin overdose in 1982, Williams stopped using drugs. But he relapsed occasionally and was at rehab earlier this summer.
To someone suffering from depression and feeling hopeless, they may think: If Williams, who has the best help money can buy, commits suicide, what chance do I have?
How is it possible that a man so funny would do this at 63? Tragedy is the opposite of comedy. But depression is a disease of the body, and it can strike no matter your station in life.
If information can make suicide go viral, it can combat it, too. That's why we should use this as a teachable moment. Mental illness is treatable; suicide is preventable; middle-aged white males are at the greatest risk for suicide; and, most importantly, there is help available for people who aren't rich and famous.
The California Legislature is considering a bill, AB 2198, which would require that mental health care providers have a certain amount of suicide prevention in their training. The debate is whether their current training on mental illness is sufficient.
What is not debatable is that all of us can do more to help prevent suicide by learning to recognize the risk factors in ourselves and in others.