People the world over mourned the death of popular comedian-actor Robin Williams after his sudden and shocking suicide this past week. It left many asking: how could someone so beloved and with such success, wealth and fame be driven to such a desperate act?

The answer comes down to one word: depression. This depression was something that he tried to drown or mask with substance abuse, a lifelong battle for the actor, but his bouts with substance abuse only intensified his depression. He also had recent medical complications that likely aggravated his depression: major heart surgery in 2009 and the news that he had been recently diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease.

In our society, we tend to equate depression with sadness. We all use the word indiscriminately to describe small daily defeats and moods, yet the reality is far different. Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting an estimated 1 in 10 adults.

One of the most effective descriptions of depression that we’ve seen was newscaster Mike Wallace’s candid discussion of his own near-suicide. In an interview with psychiatrist Jeffrey Borenstein on Healthy Minds, Wallace and his wife Mary discuss his suicide attempt and his 20 year struggle with depression. He discusses the pain of depression he and his wife also speak of the stigma and ignorance that often stands in the way of getting help.

Depression is treatable and treatment is quite effective, but it often requires the agency of a spouse, friend or family member to intervene. In Robin Williams’ Death Is a Wakeup Call for Mental Illness, Jonathon Cohn notes some of the barriers to help:

“According to government statistics, compiled in 2010, 60 percent of Americans with mental illness got no treatment within the previous year. People reported a variety of reasons—they couldn’t pay for it, they thought they’d be fine, they didn’t want others to learn about it.”

Depression doesn’t have to be unbearable for your employees. Employers that offer an EAP have access to a powerful tool for their employees that makes counseling affordable and accessible. The key is in publicizing information about depression, as well as disseminating frequent information about the availability of help through the EAP.

Here’s a start: why not share this short video on depression from the World Health Organization with your employees, along with a reminder about access to the EAP?


Other tools for help
The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health has teamed up with Employers Health Coalition to shine a spotlight on depression in the workplace. The primary message: When you’re depressed at work, it can feel like you’re lost in the woods alone. But there’s help, and you can find your way out.” They’ve produced Right Direction, an informative and useful site that is worth sharing with your employees. And the site offers several reasons why you may want to do that:

“Did you know mental illnesses like depression cause more days of work loss and work impairment than any other chronic health conditions, including arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease?

Individuals with depression are twice as likely to develop coronary artery disease, twice as likely to have a stroke – and more than four times as likely to die within six months of having a heart attack.”

The site theme plays on the word “bear” using the animal as a creative theme. It includes a variety of plain-speaking tools to address the issue – among them, an an interactive map of common symptoms and a self-assessment tool. We liked the chart comparing how depression might feel to one who suffers from it vs. how that may be perceived by others:

The site also includes FAQs, resources for how and where to get help (Note: among the help suggestions is using your company Employee Assistance Program), and resources for employers, including a “Field Guide” with communication materials, powerpoints, and an implementation plan to help you get the message out.

Looking for the most comprehensive and effective wellness program for your employees? ESI TotalCare Wellness pairs Behavioral Health Clinicians with certified Wellness Coaches to provide employees and their families with the help, motivation, tools and support to make changes and improve their lives. Call 800-535-4841 for more information.


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