Understanding Hopelessness & Cultivating Hope: Discussing Suicide and the Death of Robin Williams

As the world feels and reacts to the news of Robin Williams’ death, the national conversation has turned quite rapidly to suicide and suicide prevention. Unfortunately, to those of us in the field of mental health, these headlines require daily observance. In general, individuals struggling with eating disorders are more likely than those without eating disorders to think about and attempt suicide. One study found that risk for suicide is approximately 23 times higher in those with eating disorders than in the general population of the same age (Harris and Barraclough, NSPL_Logo_home1997).

While we feel strongly that the details surrounding Williams’ death are a private matter, it has been publicly acknowledged that he was battling severe depression and had a long history of substance abuse.  Among a multitude of public reactions to the news, there is a pervasive feeling of shock that a person whose public life was built around laughter and joy could simultaneously be experiencing so much pain. People far and wide are wondering how this hilarious and much-loved person could actually be feeling so hopeless?

Hopelessness is a difficult topic, particularly for individuals who are not in the midst of feeling it and, perhaps as a result, have a difficult time conceptualizing how anyone else could ever get to a point that they feel completely unable to be helped. But understanding hopelessness is at the core of every discussion about suicide. Discussing it honestly and compassionately can make a difference for those who struggle. Carrie Arnold, a former guest speaker here at the Center, wrote openly about this on her blog after receiving the news about Williams. A poignant account of her own experience with depression and attempted suicide, Arnold captures the importance of striving to understand and develop compassion for individuals in a state of despair.

“We talk of people who complete suicide as being ‘selfish’ that they couldn’t sense their loved one’s pain. Yet when those feelings of utter despair washed over me, all I could think about was the pain I was causing others.”

Arnold goes on to talk about the venture back from despair and the rebuilding of hope, desire and gratitude, writing:

“Then you figure out that you have started living life again without even realizing it. There’s no miracle moment, here, just the slow stringing together of small moments into a narrative called your biography.”

Carrie Arnold’s story is extremely important to tell because it reflects the stories of so many others that don’t make headlines and rarely get told. This is the story of traveling to the brink of hopelessness and continuing right on through. This is the story of hope. The message to people struggling with eating disorders, depression or addiction is that you can prevail.  You can feel hopeless and still not be hopeless.

Almost every single guest speaker we’ve hosted to speak about recovery through the years has shared that he or she felt hopeless often and they fully believed recovery was impossible for them. They were sure of it. Yet there they are, years later, standing on a stage telling their incredible story of recovery.  Rest assured, many people living full,  meaningful lives without their eating little tree growingdisorders today were once sitting there in front of a computer screen thinking about how recovery was impossible for them too. Too many lives have been lost to suicide, there is no question about that. Yet so many others have been to the depths of hopelessness and traveled back. In fact, according to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, “the vast majority of people who face adversity, mental illness, and other challenges—even those in high risk groups—do not die by suicide, but instead find support, treatment, or other ways to cope.” This is where we can begin to cultivate hope. Do not listen to any voice that says you can’t recover. YOU CAN.

The news of Robin Williams’ death is a reminder to each of us that hopelessness rarely puts itself on parade. Hopelessness hides; it isolates and it often masquerades as your neighbor, friend or coworker trudging quietly through the thickness of depression all while posting exciting status updates on Facebook or volunteering at their child’s school with a fresh smile. If we take something from the tragic passing of a beautiful person and talented actor, let it be this:

Depression does not discriminate.  A well-polished public life – house, career, car, body, wardrobe, etc – is not an accurate reflection of a person’s private life or emotional experience. Check-in with friends if you know they’ve struggled with depression in the past, and never assume that someone is okay based on outward appearance alone.

ASK FOR HELP.   It is not shameful to struggle out loud. Be honest with those around you about how you’re feeling and do not allow your hopelessness to hide.  Talk to friends, family or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you are in crisis.

Depression, eating disorders and substance abuse are treatable illnesses. If you’ve traveled through hopelessness and back again, share with others about that experience of healing so they know it’s possible and that hopelessness is not a one-way street. Encourage others to get treatment.

Know the signs and symptoms that someone is in immediate danger for suicidal behavior and become educated about underlying risk factors for suicide. For example, adolescent boys and girls engaging in multiple unhealthy weight control behaviors are at greater risk for experiencing suicidal thoughts (Kim, et al, 2009).

For more information about the risks of suicide associated with eating disorders, please visit Medical Complication of Eating Disorders.

If you are interested in getting treatment for an eating disorder and co-occurring issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma or substance abuse, please call us right away at (410) 938-5252.  You are not alone.

www.eatingdisorder.org

*Tree image courtesy of Just2shutter and FreeDigitalPhotos.net