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Sewickley area experts react to Robin Williams' death, depression

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

“Life is fleeting. And if you're ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky when the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness, turning night into day … make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did.” — Robin Williams, as Jack Powell in “Jack,” 1996.

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For many people who loved the iconic comedian and actor — from his roles as quirky alien Mork to Mrs. Doubtfire and alone in the spotlight of a stage doing standup — the life of Robin Williams was fleeting. His death was unexpected and his suicide, unimaginable.

In the days since his hanging in his Tiburon, Calif., home, messages of loss have poured in from around the world. One sentiment tweeted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held a profound message for many. With a picture of the Genie and Aladdin from the Disney movie, it stated, “Genie, you're free.”

But the message, some experts say, is the wrong one.

“Absolutely, it can (make suicide seem like a viable option),” said Carl Baughman, Samaritan Counseling Center executive director. “It becomes a fine line because, in one way, Robin Williams is free from depression, but the way he chose to deal with it is far from helping.”

Baughman, a licensed family and marriage therapist, said it sounds like Williams “really did try at different times to deal with it, cope with it through his various rehabs and hospitalizations.” Many people do not understand depression as an illness, he said.

“Depression is different for different people. Sometimes, people can just be so overwhelmed with sadness, grief and despair that they can't function, can't get out of bed. They can sleep a lot or have trouble sleeping. They eat a lot or have trouble eating. They don't participate in life like they used to. There's no sense of future or hope,” Baughman said.

He said that for others, depression can be like a cloud that can keep them from experiencing fun and compassion.

He said that because many people don't understand clinical depression, they tell someone who is suffering from it, “Oh, just think happy. Go shopping,” as if that person is just having a “blue day.”

For someone suffering from clinical depression, trying to think happy thoughts will not work, he said.

“It's hard for people who haven't experienced it to identify with it, but people who are depressed probably have tried all of those things already, and so to be told just to go out or call a friend, that can actually make it worse because they think if they've tried those things and they're not helping. It must be them — they must be the problem.”

He said that people need to discuss the potential effects of clinical depression, which is a treatable disorder.

“Society needs to be talking about it more and, because of Robin Williams, they are these days. The problem is, with Robin Williams, that will become just a passing blip on the screen,” Baughman said. “People feel that others don't understand, that there isn't hope, but by talking about it, beginning that conversation, we can show them that there is.”

Robert Fisher, clinical director at Heritage Valley Sewickley's Staunton Clinic, based in Edgeworth, said part of the reason suicide isn't discussed is that it is so common that it's often overlooked or dismissed.Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among adults and the leading cause of death among young people, according to the American Association of Suicidology, Fisher said.

Sometimes, friends and loved ones may brush off signs of depression, Baughman said.

“If a family member says ‘the world would be better off without me,' the tendency is to say, ‘Oh, you don't mean that. You have so much to live for,' and not to really hear the pain and despair that's running beneath those comments.”

Baughman said it's the responsibility of friends and family to make suggestions on how to get help.

“That person is giving you a glimpse into their world, about how they feel, how they see life — telling you they don't see the point in going on, so you definitely want to take it seriously. And hopefully because of Robin Williams, people will bring it up.”

Mya Koch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-324-1403 or mkoch@tribweb.com.

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