Robin Williams' suicide shines spotlight on depression, healthcare services and treatment options

I'll never forget my first--and only--panic attack.

About 18 years ago, while driving over the Tobin Bridge that crosses the Mystic River in Boston to head home after covering a healthcare conference, fear gripped my entire body. There was no warning. My heart raced, my palms began to sweat and nausea swept over me. I was terrified.

I didn't think I could control the car and yet I knew I had to continue on, because pulling over or stopping in the middle of rush-hour traffic would surely have caused an accident. Somehow I managed to make it home. But I felt awful for days afterwards--so traumatized by the experience.

It was as if an irrational fear took over my being and I had no control over it. The feeling was so awful that I have avoided driving over bridges ever since that day for fear that it will trigger a similar response.

I recalled that day earlier this week when I learned that actor and comedian Robin Williams died Monday by his own hand after battling severe depression. Like many of his fans, I was shocked that such a brilliant, talented, wealthy and famous individual could commit suicide. Didn't he know how many people loved and admired him? Didn't he think of his family?

And then I thought about my panic attack, which probably lasted a few minutes but felt like eternity. I had no control over those feelings. From what I've learned in recent days, it sounds like depression took hold of Williams' mind in a similar manner, distorting his reality to such an extent that he no longer had the control to fight his condition, as well as his recent Parkinson's disease diagnosis. He felt helpless, hopeless, and ultimately chose to end what many would consider a blessed and enviable life.

It is so sad and tragic. And to many, I suspect, it seemed unnecessary.  

But amid this tragedy, some good may come out of his decision. If depression and mental illness could cripple the gifted Williams, it stands to reason that no one is immune to the disease. Like other celebrities who put a public face on previously hidden healthcare conditions--such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, who struggles with bipolar disease--Williams' plight may shine a lingering light on the fact that depression is more than mere sadness.

Perhaps, finally, society will begin to understand that it is a disease, one which has no cure but in some instances can be treated. And that means providing ongoing services to those individuals in desperate need of them.

And many, many individuals are clearly in need. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 39,518 people killed themselves in 2011. Physicians are at a higher risk for suicide but rarely seek treatment. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide each year.

Perhaps Williams' death will help people get over the stigma of seeking treatment for depression or thoughts of suicide.

And soon hospitals may have additional tools to help them determine whether a patient is truly at risk for self-harm.

Matthew Nock, a Harvard professor of psychology and one of the world's leading suicide researchers, plans to pilot an exam in the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, NBC News reports. Psych patients will receive a tablet computer and answer a questionnaire to determine an unconscious interest in death or bias against life. Patients will then sign a form that allows the computer program to analyze their medical records for additional predictors, he told the news outlet.

If the results work, Nock says they could revolutionize the way physicians address their suicide prevention efforts.

And soon a blood test may predict a person's risk of attempting suicide, thanks to a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine who recently discovered a chemical alteration in a single human gene linked to stress reactions.

The test may predict future suicide attempts and help clinicians make decisions regarding the intensity of intervention approaches and which medications to use to treat the illnesses.

"Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves," study leader Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

"With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe."

It's too late for these tools to help Williams, but his influence even after death, may spur funding for further treatment options for depression and suicide. And that would be a poignant legacy for a man who gave so much in life.--Ilene (@FierceHealth)

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