While the death of Robin Williams has sparked an outpouring of grief around the world, mental health advocates say they hope it will also renew efforts to prevent suicide.
"He was such a charismatic and beloved figure, that if his death can galvanize our society to act instead of just grieve, it will be a fitting memorial to him," says Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chairman of psychiatry at New York's Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
By putting a sympathetic human face on the problem of mental illness, Williams could help others better understand the disease and show compassion for those who suffer from it, says Paul Banuski, of Skaneateles, N.Y. Like Williams, Banuski has fought depression and alcoholism. In March, Banuski survived his second suicide attempt.
"Too many people don't understand depression as a medical issue," says Banuski, 30. "They see it as a moral failing."
That stigma has hindered the country's progress in reducing suicide, Banuski says.
The USA's suicide rate has been stubbornly high for decades, with more than 39,000 annual deaths — a number that has been growing even as deaths from other causes have fallen, says Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Suicide, for example, now kills twice as many people as homicides, yet receives only a fraction of the attention, Insel says. Suicide also kills more people than car accidents, AIDS or prostate cancer.
More people need to realize that depression can be a "life-threatening illness," Insel says. "These disorders can be fatal, even when people get really good care, which is no different from cancer or heart disease."
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a child psychologist, has introduced legislation to change the way mental illness is treated and funded. In a statement released Tuesday, he said he hopes Williams' death will focus the country's attention on a long-neglected issue.
"Over the last decade, the annual suicide rate among Mr. Williams' age group has increased nearly 30%," Murphy said. "In what other discipline of medicine would we ignore such staggering statistics?"
These deaths are especially tragic, because they are preventable, Lieberman says. While many view mental illness as hopeless, treatment for diseases such as depression and bipolar disorder is actually very effective.
The country has steadily chipped away at other major causes of deaths, such as car accidents, by requiring seat belts, air bags and guard rails, Insel says. The USA could reduce suicides with similar combinations of technology and public policy. He notes that simple barriers around bridges prevent many suicidal people from falling to their deaths. And a carbon monoxide sensor, which shuts off the ignition when levels of the gas reach toxic levels inside a car, could prevent at least 760 suicide deaths a year. Technology to make these devices, which would cost less than $50, has been around for 40 years, Insel says.
In these and other ways, Lieberman says, "we know what to do to prevent suicide. We just don't do it."
Banuski says he's speaking out now, in spite of the stigma of mental illness, to dispel some of the myths about suicide, including the notion that it's impossible to help someone who wants to die.
"At the last minute, I changed my mind," Banuski says. "I'm convinced that if I had had a gun in the house, that I would be dead."
Removing weapons from the home or putting even small roadblocks in the path of someone considering suicide can be lifesaving, Insel says. Many suicide attempts are impulsive decisions that fade within hours or even minutes.
Banuski got help — including medication and weekly therapy — and is now "happy to be alive."
But Banuski says the country needs to change the way it thinks about mental illness. He says he's been frustrated to read stories describing Williams as "battling demons," as if depression were a moral failing instead of a matter of brain chemistry and genes.
"We don't treat mental health the same way we treat other disease," Banuski says. "Nobody would say, if you die of cancer, that you were battling demons. They would say that you had a disease and that you fought it with treatments and medicine. Well, we do that in mental health, too."
Jonathan Rottenberg, a psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida, also opted to speak publicly about the depression that led him to be hospitalized 20 years ago, when he considered suicide.
"We're on the cusp of a breakthrough," says Rottenberg, who says younger people are less intimidated by the stigma of mental illness and more willing to speak out. "Young people are in the vanguard today in changing attitudes about mental illness. They don't understand why it should invalidate you as a human being."
Rottenberg says he hopes his story can give hope to others who are struggling with depression.
"I was quite sure that I would never get to the other side," says Rottenberg, now 45, with a wife, daughter and successful career. "My recovery has surpassed my wildest dreams."