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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams’ death brings depression and mental illness to the fore once again

Elaine de Mello hopes that maybe, this time, a celebrity death that sucker-punched millions of Americans will have a lasting impact in her world.

De Mello is the training and services manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-N.H. While Robin Williams’ suicide generated a fevered discussion in media and online about depression, anxiety and substance abuse, de Mello hopes the conversation isn’t short-lived. ...

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Elaine de Mello hopes that maybe, this time, a celebrity death that sucker-punched millions of Americans will have a lasting impact in her world.

De Mello is the training and services manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness-N.H. While Robin Williams’ suicide generated a fevered discussion in media and online about depression, anxiety and substance abuse, de Mello hopes the conversation isn’t short-lived.

“Unfortunately we do tend to ignore it,” de Mello said. “We hope that people will see that anyone can suffer from mental illness, even a very famous and successful person.

“And the inverse: People with mental illness are very successful and have a lot to contribute.”

Williams’ death shocked fans and friends alike, despite his candor about decades of struggle with substance abuse and mental health. The Marin County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department, which said Williams hanged himself, is conducting toxicology tests and interviews before issuing a final ruling on his death.

Williams had publicly acknowledged periodic struggles with substance abuse, including alcohol. Recently, depression prompted him to enter rehab.

While few can identify with much of Williams’ life of fame, movie stardom and legacy as one of the most gifted comedians of all time, thousands of New Hampshire residents can understand how all of that could be swamped under suffocating feelings of despair and self-doubt. Depression is incredibly common, de Mello said, and can be triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain, or external mental or physical traumas.

“That and anxiety are two of the most common mental health disorders people experience,” she said, saying sufferers can develop a short of “tunnel vision and begin to feel like they have no way out.”

“They have such a poor sense of self-esteem, they begin to think the world would be better off without them,” de Mello said.

More than 1,100 people killed themselves from 2007-12 in New Hampshire, including 203 in 2012 alone, according to NAMI-NH’s 2012 report; 79 percent of the victims were male.

For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around a mindset so warped, so clouded in a depressive fugue that only death offers some relief. One way to try, though, is to remember what anathema death is to a species. Our very natures demand we survive, de Mello said.

“We’re programmed to survive and thrive, and if we’re not able to do that, it’s because something’s not functioning,” she said. “Some people who take their lives really believe they’re doing their families a favor.

“You can see there’s a disconnect there.”

Depression presents itself in many ways. It can be an acute but brief period, or a longer-lasting but milder condition, more like a low-grade fever that’s always lurking.

One upside is that depressive episodes that cause a person to be suicidal are almost always temporary. Treatment is also particularly effective.

“Suicide can be prevented if we know the warning signs and people get treatment for serious mental illness,” de Mello said. “It’s important to note, though, that it’s very treatable. We have better luck treating depression than we do some other diseases, like heart disease.

Tony Paradiso, the CEO at the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, said one of the highest hurdles to effectively connecting with people suffering from depression remains the stigma attached to mental illness in general and the belief that depressed people will just “get over it,” regarding depression in particular.

“They don’t understand how debilitating it can be,” Paradiso said. “One of our biggest challenges remains the stigma and getting people to reach out for help.”

He said conventional thinking among mental health experts is that integrating primary and mental health care is a vital way to effectively treat conditions such as depression and anxiety and also to reduce the stigma around mental illness by treating it as any other illness.

“These things begin to feed on one another,” Paradiso said. “That’s ultimately where treatment has to go.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached
at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Cote
on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).