The recent suicide of actor Robin Williams has some health officials concerned about possible copy-cat suicides, but the death also is raising awareness about suicide prevention.
Renee Carr, a community educator for the Mental Health Association in Fulton and Montgomery Counties, stated in a letter to The Leader-Herald that widely publicized reports of death by suicide sometimes can result in an increase of suicide among people already at risk.
"I would like to take this opportunity to encourage us all to be sensitive in our discussions and to educate ourselves about depression and other mental illnesses," she said. "Major depression is an illness which can affect the brain and other parts of the body. It can be triggered by biological factors, sometimes inherited, sometimes not. It can have many causes and contributors, including other medical conditions and illnesses, medications and chemical substances, and sometimes unknown elements which can alter the make-up of the brain."
Fulton County Director of Public Health Irina Gelman said she doesn't subscribe to the theory a celebrity suicide can increase the rate of suicide, but she does hope the tragedy of Williams' suicide could result in healthy public discussion about the sometimes taboo subject of suicide.
"The silver lining of this situation, if there may be any, is the fact that this unfortunate event lends itself to continued open discussions regarding suicide, thereby assisting prevention efforts," she said. "If we can discuss it, maybe we can prevent more of these."
The latest statistics available from the New York State Office of Mental Health show there were five suicides in Fulton County in 2011, seven in 2010, none in 2009, 11 in 2008 and five in 2007. During that same period, Montgomery County had suicides every year, with eight in 2011, six in 2010, four in 2009, six in 2008 and four in 2007. Hamilton County, which between 2004 and 2006 had the highest suicide rate of any county in New York state due to the county's small population, has had fewer suicides in recent years. Hamilton County had no suicides in 2011, 2010 and 2009, one suicide in 2008 and one in 2007.
Gelman said she believes the number of suicides in Fulton County has been trending up since December 2013.
Carr said a number of local programs can help people who might be considering suicide.
"I provide educational presentations about major depression and suicide awareness at local schools and agencies, and it covers symptoms of depression and anxiety, the warning signs of suicide, the importance of seeking help, where to get help, and I lead discussions on helping people overcome their inhibitions so they can ask for help, or involving themselves in order to help other people," she said.
Carr said more information about the Mental Health Association in Fulton and Montgomery Counties is available by calling 762-5332 or the toll-free line at 1-800-734-5864.
Laura Marx, the Capital Region director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said people considering suicide often show warning signs.
"You're looking for dramatic changes in behavior, and whenever we think of a change in behavior, we think of something negative, like a child who was doing well in school suddenly gets bad grades, but we should remember that sudden positive changes in behavior can also be a warning sign," she said. "I was talking to someone recently about someone they knew who had always been aggressive and withdrawn and angry all the time who suddenly seemed to feel better and was happy and participating in things, and he was doing that because he had already made his decision and he was at peace with his decision [to commit suicide]."
Marx said her organization, which is dedicated to supporting suicide-prevention programs, is having its largest annual fundraiser, the Out of the Darkness Walk for R.I.T.A., Sept. 21 at the Saratoga Race Course. She said the event last year raised $190,000, and her organization's goal for this year is $220,000. More information on how to register for or donate to the fundraiser is available at www.afsp.org.
Local resources available to people considering suicide include the Mental Health Crisis Hotline of St. Mary's Hospital at 842-9111 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Board chairwoman for the Capital Region Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Marianne Reid Schrom, a Broadalbin resident, said there also is local support for people who have been affected by suicide. She said a group for survivors of suicide loss called Survivors of a Loved One's Suicide, or SOLOS, meets twice a month in Amsterdam. More information about the group and its meeting dates and times is available by contacting Schrom at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-3569.