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Robin Williams' death sheds light on depression


In light of the tragic news about the death of comedian Robin Williams, we asked Cheryl Wehler, MD, medical director of the Via Christi Psychiatric Clinic and faculty member of the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, about depression and suicide, and what to do if someone you love is struggling with these issues.

What is depression?

We see many, many people with depression and anxiety. Some patients have more severe illnesses, but the most common mental health illnesses seen by primary care physicians, as well as psychiatrists, are depression and anxiety. 

When someone is depressed, they have a depressed mood and they don’t find joy in the things the used to find joy in. Depression often affects your energy levels, your ability to concentrate, and can affect your sleep and appetite.

Depression makes you think negatively all the time. Everything is dark. It’s like wearing sunglasses all the time. All those things you can normally cope with are more difficult to cope with when you’re depressed.

Is having depression a precursor to suicide?

Most suicides that occur happen in people that have depression or depression and anxiety.

What can friends or family do if someone they love is showing signs of depression?

If people are depressed, they can tend to isolate themselves. But it’s very important that you don’t let them isolate and that you seek help. Take them to their primary care physician or even bring them to Via Christi’s Psychiatric Clinic

If you’re concerned they might commit suicide or if you’re starting to see signs that they’re starting to think about suicide, or they start giving their things away, there are resources. Via Christi’s Assessment Center, a special unit just outside the Emergency Room at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, offers an emergency psychiatric service to assess psychiatric patients to determine the need for inpatient care. Once it’s been determined that a patient is in need of ongoing inpatient psychiatric treatment, they can be transferred to Ascension Via Christi Behavioral Health Center. You can contact the Asessment Center at 316-689-4850. 

COMCARE OF Sedgwick County has a 24-hour crisis line where people can call if they suspect a loved one is dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts. They can be reached at 316-660-7500.

There’s a lot of social stigma around depression and suicide. What can be done to deal with the stigma?

It’s important to realize that depression is an illness like diabetes. We aren’t afraid to talk about diabetes or cardiac illness, so we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about depression. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s treatable, and we can do many things to help the patient not feel so depressed or so down.

In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, what is important for people to know about depression and suicide?

It’s sad and tragic for him, his family, and the world, but every death, every suicide is tragic for someone. It’s important that we make people aware that when their loved ones are depressed they should get them to seek help. Just as there is medicine for high blood pressure or diabetes, there’s medicine for depression. It’s not something people can just get over. I think the reason there’s a stigma is some people believe mental illness is a character flaw. But it isn’t. It’s an illness in the brain; there are chemicals that are imbalanced in the brain. 

I think that even in death, Robin Williams is bringing something to the world. That something is awareness that depression, depression with substance abuse, depression with anxiety, are all illnesses that can be treated. 

If you suspect one of your loved ones is having trouble, seek help. Don’t wait. 

When a person starts to talk about suicide, it’s a clear clue that they’re thinking about it. It doesn’t always mean that they will attempt suicide. Most often if they talk about suicide, they will seek help. 

One additional point: It’s important that people going through depression don’t have access to things that can hurt them. Are there guns in the home? Large stockpiles of medicines? Be sure they don’t have easy access to these things, especially if they’re not thinking clearly.