The tragic death of comedian Robin Williams has brought new focus to the problem of suicide, which kills at least 800,000 people each year. Exact numbers are difficult to determine, because people who commit suicide often try to hide the fact, but it is believed to be the worlds tenth leading cause of death. This suggests that suicidal thoughts are quite common; one danger of media coverage of the death by suicide of a prominent person is the fear that it could lead others to emulate that person.
Suicide has been called "a permanent solution to a temporary problem," but all too often the problem doesn’t feel temporary to the person suffering. One reason for this is that depression and despair can have a distorting effect on one’s perceptions; in the words of the poet Alexander Pope, "all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye." In some cases, such as terminally ill patients suffering degenerative conditions, there may be some truth to the notion that the situation is hopeless, but otherwise there is almost always a brighter future than may be visible at the time. That is why people who are feeling suicidal are urged to get help, from a doctor, or a friend, or a helpline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.
This can be a complicated situation for the person reached out to, especially if that person is not trained. The best thing to do with a friend or relative who has expressed a suicidal feelings is to ask direct questions, though in a non-judgmental way if possible, about the person’s state of mind. Many people are reluctant to do this for fear it will be the final push, but generally it’s the opposite. Often people become suicidal when they feel they have no room to express these feelings. Someone to talk to, someone who encourages them to open up, can be tremendously helpful. If someone is talking about suicide, this is not a sign they won’t do it; although suicide is frequently an impulsive act, someone thinking and talking about suicide often is more likely to go through with it.