Suicide hotline calls tend to spike following high-profile deaths

Dr. Mark George, director of the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the MUSC Institute of Psychiatry, spoke about suicide and treatment in the wake of actor Robin Williams taking his own life.

After news broke that actor Robin Williams died by suicide, the local director of Trident United Way's suicide prevention line acknowledged that call volume will likely increase.

That's what usually happens following a high-profile death, said Charlotte Anderson, who manages the 211 hotline.

"It sparks both calls from people who are worried about themselves, who realize they are vulnerable, who realize they sit on the edge - that scary place - and also from people who are worried about someone else," Anderson said. "Maybe they've been thinking about reaching out, but now they realize, 'Boy, I need to reach out.'"

Williams, best known for his movie roles in "Aladdin," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Good Morning, Vietnam," died by suicide in California on Monday.

In his obituary, The Associated Press reports Williams was 63 and had recently been battling depression. News of his death shocked fans across the country, spreading quickly via Facebook and Twitter late Monday and dominating morning talk shows Tuesday.

Nearly 40,000 people in the United States and 658 in South Carolina died by suicide in 2011, according to the American Association of Suicidology.

The National Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers news media recommendations to minimize the effect that their reporting may have on "likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals."

For example, Anderson explained, "died by suicide" or "completed suicide" is preferred to "committed suicide." Well-known suicides often trigger painful memories for many people who have battled depression or lost someone they loved, she said.

"It all comes flooding back," said Dennis Gillam, who lost his brother Mark to suicide in 1983 and his brother Matthew to suicide in 1994.

"This story last night, all I could think about was the family. ... I know exactly what they're going through."

Gillam, who lives in Columbia and works part-time in Mount Pleasant, agreed with Anderson that it helps to talk.

"You don't have to have huge, perfect things to say," Anderson said. "Most importantly, just say, 'I haven't forgotten about you. I'm here for you.' "

Dr. Mark George, a Medical University of South Carolina professor and psychiatrist, will host a lecture on Thursday called the "Neuroanatomy of Suicide" for faculty, students and staff. The discussion will focus on three parts of the brain that usually malfunction before someone kills himself, George said.

"It's not a moral issue. It's not a weakness. It's a brain issue," he said.

Research shows that the brain's limbic system, which controls emotions, tends to be overactive before a patient decides to kill take his or her life. The pre-frontal cortex, which allows us to make plans and think creatively, does not properly evaluate options during that time period, either, George said.

"If Robin Williams could have seen himself as we all see him, there's no way he would have committed suicide, but that part of the brain turns off in people when they are thinking about suicide," he said.

Finally, the brain's control center - the default system intended to stop humans from making impulsive, potentially harmful decisions - doesn't kick in.

"Often alcohol or other substances will numb that default system and make people more impulsive," he said.

Williams acknowledged a decades-long struggle with substance abuse.

The most important point, George noted, is that depression can be treated, particularly by therapy, medication and even newer approaches, including magnetic stimulation, which was recently shown to reduce suicidal thoughts among veterans.

"(Suicide) is something to be destigmatized," George said. "It's just like a heart attack. It's some part of the body that's not working right and we can treat it."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.