As news broke Monday of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, thousands of people around social media not only paid their respects to the beloved comedian and actor, but also spread awareness about depression and mental illness. Many posted the simple message, “If you are sad, tell someone,” while including links to suicide hotlines.
Hotlines have seen an increase in calls since Williams’ death, including those of the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, a suicide prevention organization based in Lawrence.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in our crisis helpline,” Debbie Helms, Samaritans supervisor, said. “The day after Robin Williams died, we had more calls than we normally would (on Tuesday).”
The Samaritans, a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, have been serving the community for 34 years. In addition to their helpline, the Samaritans provide programs for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. The organization focuses on outreach and education about depression and suicide prevention, doing about 50 visits each year to schools, churches, and businesses.
Although Massachusetts ranks 47th in the United States in the suicide rate, Helms said that the rate around the Northeast has increased over the last four to five months.
“We’ve been working a lot with survivors, unfortunately,” Helms said. “We’re thrilled that they know that we’re here, but there seems to be an awful lot of suicides in this region lately.”
Suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause in the United States. According the Samaritans’ website, people in Massachusetts die by suicide two and a half to three times more often than homicide. In 2011, there were 39,518 reported suicides in the country, a number higher than the capacity of Fenway Park. Due to the difficulty of assessing if deaths can be considered suicide or not, the 2011 data remains the most recent.
While Williams’ death has perhaps helped those struggling with depression to reach out for help, some experts believe that it may do the exact opposite, and an increase in suicides may occur.
“When someone of fame dies by suicide, it’s somewhat alarming the impact it has,” said Dr. Douglas Jacobs, an expert on suicide and depression. “It’s always been that way, and the impact in today’s society, with all the different media covering a death (like Williams’), has the potential to be quite serious.”
Jacobs is the founder of Screening for Mental Health, a non-profit organization based in Wellesley that provides screenings for those suffering from mental illness. He uses the example of Marilyn Monroe, who died by suicide in 1962, to explain how a celebrity’s suicide can impact others suffering from depression.
“When Monroe died, studies showed the suicide rate increased 10 percent over the next 10 days,” Jacobs said. “There are vulnerable people out there right now. The rate will be something to watch over the next 10 days.”
Still, Jacobs said that Williams’ death has gotten people talking about suicide, and the fact that awareness continues to be raised can be considered a “silver lining.”
“The good to come out of this is the somber recognition that mental illness needs to be treated just like any other disease. We have to accept that,” Jacobs said.
Helms agrees with that sentiment. Even though she doesn’t know how long this rate of calls will continue, the fact that people are reaching out remains a positive thing. She points to the work of suicide survivors specifically in helping others struggling with depression.
The Samaritans have a program called “Survivor Voices,” where survivors go out and speak to those struggling people about their own tragedy. When a survivor can speak openly about their experience, the impact is unbelievable, according to Helms.
“They are totally willing to help,” she said. “In their minds, if they can save one family from going through what they went through, then it’s worth it.”
The Samaritans are always looking for volunteers for their crisis hotline, and offer support groups for survivors at locations in North Andover and Beverly. Helms feels great about the work that the Samaritans have done, but understands that they have to continue moving forward to help those suffering.
“We’ve been lucky that people have been reaching out to us,” Helms said. “However, we need to reach more people, and that’s what we try to do every day.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Samaritans of Merrimack Valley Phone Numbers:
1-866-912-4673 toll free
978-327-6606 teen line