Robin Williams'death sparks conversation about suicide prevention

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Robin Williams' death has sparked a conversation, not only about his memorable work and humor, but also about mental health issues.

Experts say typically, there are warning signs of a suicidal person, like substance abuse, withdrawing from friends and family or giving away valued possessions.

But sometimes, it can be difficult to know, because like Robin Williams, they'll find a way to mask their struggle.

"This is Robin Williams - he's a very funny guy, that's how easily it can be masked by anyone," said volunteer at the Wellness Shack, Bob Schraeder.

Schraeder said the Wellness Shack in Eau Claire is a place for anyone struggling with mental illness. They provided peer-to-peer support groups and events.

"I know a lot of the people who come down here to the Wellness Shack, they just want their story heard. They want somebody to listen to them," said Schraeder.

He said it helps to validate someone who is thinking about suicide. Acknowledge that they're making an effort by talking about, by going to a place like the Wellness Shack or by calling a crisis hotline.

He said last year, 324 people made nearly 70,000 visits to the Wellness Shack, seeking help.

"If they consider the option of stepping out ending their life, I think the first important question is why do you want to do that?" said Schraeder.

He said it's important to ask the question directly, "Why are you thinking about killing yourself? Are you thinking about killing yourself?" That way, a suicidal person thinks twice about what they are doing.

Rhonda Brown is the divisional director of 3D Community Health. The group is working to prevent suicide in Chippewa County. They had a meeting last month discussing the prevalence of suicides.

"Life offers us a second chance and that's tomorrow but not if we go ahead and do something that's eternal like suicide," said Brown.

She said in 2013, there were more than 20 suicides in Chippewa Co. In 2012, there were eight.

The group is organizing training sessions and other innovative ideas to prevent suicide.

"We have some particular training we are offering in Chippewa Co. called QPR question persuade and respond or refer," said Brown. "Some people think if I mention the word suicide, that might get them to think about suicide, that's not the case."

She said the group is also doing a study on suicide prevention. They will look for trends in past suicides and see if there are geographical, age and other categories or correlation.

Jennifer Muehlenkamp, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at UW-Eau Claire.

"Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and the third leading cause of death among teens and adolescents," said Muehlenkamp.

But she said it's the most common among middle-aged white men. There are also other warning signs to watch for.

"Probably one of the most common is people can say indirectly say I just want this pain to stop, I just want out, they'll feel trapped or hopeless about their lives feel like there's not purpose left," said Muehlenkamp.

She said anyone can struggle from depression, even people who seem successful and happy from the outside like Robin Williams.

"Even people who seem to lead glamorous lives can really struggle internally with all kinds of different mental illnesses and I know he struggled with substance abuse as well as depression chronically throughout his life, and the combination of the two can make a very lethal combination," said Muehlenkamp.

To get in touch with a local suicide prevention hotline, call 888-552-6642. The National Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. If you'd rather text, you can text "LISTEN" to 741-741.

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