John McMillin: Star’s legacy may prevent more suicides

I was still a teenager when, as a member of the Columbia House Record Club, I ordered a copy of Robin Williams’ first comedy album. I wore the grooves off that record, so the news of his suicide this week was sad and frustrating to say the least.
Aug 17, 2014
John McMillin

I was still a teenager when, as a member of the Columbia House Record Club, I ordered a copy of Robin Williams’ first comedy album. I wore the grooves off that record, so the news of his suicide this week was sad and frustrating to say the least. 

I never knew the person behind the persona, but appreciated his great talent and his ability to make not just myself, but also millions of others laugh. Although he enriched the lives of thousands of people with his energized brand of comedy, I have to believe that perhaps one of his most lasting and important legacies will be drawing attention to depression and suicide.

 Sometimes you have to talk with an expert, so to find out more about suicide prevention and its links to depression, I spoke with United Way of Wilson County partner agency director and mental health professional Nathan Miller with the Cumberland Mental Health Center in Lebanon. According to Miller, in Tennessee an estimated 900 men, women, and children die by suicide each year.  Incredibly, more people die by suicide each year than from homicide, AIDS or drunk driving. Suicide is the leading cause of violent death in our state, nationally and worldwide, far exceeding homicide and death due to natural disasters.

Miller explained that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youth and young adults ages 15-24 in Tennessee and throughout the entire nation. In almost all cases, suicide can be traced to unrecognized, untreated, or poorly treated mental illness. It can happen to people regardless of sex, race or ethnicity, and any economic status. 

Sadly, the average suicide death leaves behind six survivors, family and friends of the deceased, and survivors are at an increased risk for attempted suicide themselves. 

Miller listed five obvious suicide indicators to look for. The first indicator is threats of suicide or statements revealing a desire not to live. Second, is a previous suicide attempt or self-harm. Third to look for is depression, including crying, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies or activities. The fourth is final arrangements or giving away prized possessions being made by the individual. Fifth to look for is drastic changes in personality or behavior.

In order to help, Miller suggests taking any threat seriously. Don’t minimize any threat or assume it is a joke. Discuss suicide openly and directly and listen. Show your support for the individual and your concern. It may seem obvious, but remove objects such as guns, pills or other things that could inflict self-harm. Most importantly, get professional help immediately.   

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in Tennessee as declared by the governor. Locally, there will be a suicide prevention event in Lebanon on Sept. 30 on the campus of Cumberland University and Sept. 23 on the grounds of the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ. Both of these events are open to everyone.

Finally, there is professional help available. Should you or someone you know be dealing with thoughts of suicide, contact the local community crisis services at 800-704-2651 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.

John McMillin is president of United Way of Wilson County. Email him at jmunitedway@bellsouth.net.

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