What the Robin Williams tragedy can teach us about depression

Robin Williams, the iconic comedian with too many notable roles to name, died Monday of an apparent suicide after a long battle with depression. If anything good has come of his tragic death, it's that it brought to light a discussion about the disorder.

Here are answers to five common questions about depression, its symptoms and how you can help yourself and your loved ones.

  1. What is depression?
    Depression is medical disorder. People who are depressed experience long-term struggles with emotions such as discouragement, sadness and disinterest to the point that it can interfere their day-to-day functioning.

  2. How common is depression?
    If you are experiencing depression, you are not alone. One in five adults in the U.S. develops depression or another type of mood-related disorder during their lifetime, and depression affects more than 19 million Americans each year. However, almost 80% of people with mood-related disorders do not receive what the National Institute of Mental Health defines as "minimally adequate treatment."

  3. What are the common symptoms?
    The NIMH lists these symptoms:
    • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings

    • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism

    • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness

    • Irritability, restlessness

    • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable

    • Fatigue and decreased energy

    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions

    • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

    • Overeating or appetite loss

    • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

    • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

  4. What should I do if I think I have depression?
    First and foremost, you should seek out medical advice. Different methods of treatment work for different people, and the best way to make informed decisions is to work with a doctor. A doctor can also help you understand what is causing your symptoms if it is not depression.

  5. What are some resources I can use to learn more?
    To find therapists specializing in depression and related disorders in your area: http://www.adaa.org/netforum/findatherapist
    To find the nearest chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which can connect you with local resources, including local hotlines: http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Your_Local_NAMI&Template=/CustomSource/AffiliateFinder.cfm
    To screen yourself or a loved one for signs of depression (though this should never replace talking to a professional): http://www.adaa.org/iving-with-anxiety/ask-and-learn/screenings/screening-depression
    PBS' 2008 program, DEPRESSION: Out of the Shadows, lists several resources for understanding depression, especially in women, certain age groups, and minorities, on its website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/takeonestep/depression/resources.html#print

When depression becomes serious, it can lead to suicide. Take care of yourself and loved ones by watching for these signs provided by the Centers for Disease Control:
  • Talking about wanting to die

  • Looking for a way to kill oneself

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

  • Talking about being a burden to others

  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

  • Displaying extreme mood swings

A message from the CDC:
The more severe these symptoms are, the higher the risk is. If a friend or loved one is displaying these symptoms, don't leave them alone. Get help!
You can call the National Suicide Prevention help line at 800-273-TALK (8255), or another suicide help line. You can contact a psychiatrist. You can take your loved one to the emergency room.
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