Robin Williams in a Group Facing Higher Risk of Suicide: Older White Men with Depression

Lenny Bernstein and Lena H. Sun, Washington Post, August 12, 2014

If you tried to create a profile of someone at high risk of committing suicide, one likely example would look like this: A middle-aged or older white male toward the end of a successful career, who suffers from a serious medical problem as well as chronic depression and substance abuse, who recently completed treatment for either or both of those psychological conditions and who is going through a difficult period, personally or professionally.

In short, that person would look a lot like Robin Williams, the 63-year-old actor and comedian who, authorities said Tuesday, hanged himself with a belt in the bedroom of his San Francisco Bay area home a day earlier.

While certainly not the only group susceptible to suicide–39,518 people took their own lives in 2011–older white males with that cluster of characteristics have been on psychologists’ radar at least since federal statistics released last year showed an alarming spike in their suicide rate between 1999 and 2010. The suicide rate for white men increased by nearly 40 percent, to 34.2 per 100,000 people.

“This is certainly the demographic, middle-aged or older Caucasians,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “And certainly men with medical problems.” Williams had an aortic valve replacement in 2009.

Men account for only about 20 percent of suicide attempts but represent about 80 percent of completed suicides, statistics show, almost certainly because they choose more lethal methods: guns and leaps from high places instead of drug overdoses, Ongur said.

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When depression, addiction and medical problems are added to the mix, the risk of a suicide attempt increases significantly. Williams was grappling with “severe depression,” according to his publicist–a condition that creates hopelessness and despair, frequent precursors to suicidal ideation. Substance abuse suppresses inhibition and can lead to an impulsive act.

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An emerging area of interest for many mental health experts is the impact of feelings that the person who attempts suicide has begun to feel he is a burden to his family and friends, who, he believes, would be better off without him.

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