News & Events

Robin Williams suicide brings attention to depression

August 15, 2014

By Alice Facente, RN
Backus Hospital Community Health Education Nurse

Depression is a serious illness, and it can happen to anyone, even people who seem highly successful in life. A good example is the devastating suicide of Robin Williams, an actor who made the world laugh while he was privately battling profound depression. While the world mourned his loss, didn’t we all take a step back to consider how overwhelming and pervasive depression is? Most of us will never attain worldwide celebrity status or have the resources that Williams did, and we must deal with depression in our own modest world.

Last week I watched an interview with Rick Springfield, a musician, singer/songwriter, and actor in the soap opera General Hospital. He was open and honest about his lifelong struggle with depression.   It started when he was about 15 years old when he described “feeling that my life was worthless.”

I jotted down some of the things he credited with helping him manage his depression:

  • Having a dog: Pet therapy has long been recognized as having health benefits. According to the naturopathic site Healthspring.net, studies have shown that petting animals can bring down a person’s blood pressure and trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which can elevate mood.
  • “Doing something I love to do:” In his case, it was to focus on songwriting and performing.       Everyone should find and cultivate a hobby or activity that can provide a distraction as well as a sense of accomplishment, whether it is painting, drawing, woodworking, knitting, music, reading, writing, etc.
  • Connecting with family: Whatever form that “family” takes: nuclear family, partner, spouse, children, close friends, or neighbors — everyone derives benefit from feeling part of a family.
  • Seeing a therapist: Rick’s opinion is that “everybody would benefit from seeing a therapist.” Anyone experiencing symptoms of depression should be encouraged to seek counseling promptly. Anti-depressant medications prescribed by the therapist may be the appropriate treatment for some.

In my experience in the field of psychiatric nursing I have found one common denominator or antidote to depression: practicing gratitude. People who made a conscious effort to recite or write down what they are grateful for – every day – seemed to keep their depression at bay.   This was my observation, but recent studies have confirmed my suspicions.

According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, practicing gratitude improves your mood, because it reduces the stress hormone cortisol by 23%. In research conducted at the University of California, Davis found that people who worked daily to cultivate an attitude of gratitude experienced improved mood, energy, and physical well-being. It’s likely that lower levels of cortisol played a major role in this.

James O’Dea, PhD, MBA, Regional Director of Cancer Services and Behavioral Health for Hartford Health Care’s East Region, had the opportunity to educate listeners about the topic of depression and suicide on Stu Bryer’s WICH radio program on August 14. He reminded listeners that depression is a medical problem just like cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Left untreated, depression will likely get worse and is potentially fatal — as seen in the tragic case of Robin Williams.

“The good news is that the vast majority of people with depression get better with treatment,” he said.   Dr. O’Dea added that it is “vital to have an ongoing relationship with a primary care provider who can look at your whole medical picture, screen for depression symptoms, and then make a referral to a mental health professional early on.”   He emphasized the importance of being attentive to early signs of depression because “the longer depression goes untreated, the more difficult it is to treat and the longer it takes.”

It was a good opportunity for Dr. O’Dea to appeal to everyone that if they have symptoms of depression, “talk to a friend, call your primary care provide and make an appointment with a mental health professional.” If you would like to listen to a podcast of this interview, you can do so at www.wich.com.

In the local area, immediate mental health issues can be handled by calling Infoline at 211, and the caller will be referred to the appropriate resource.

So there you have it: some interesting thoughts to ponder from a nurse, a doctor and a rock star musician.