19 Aug

If Robin Williams can kill himself, so can Oregonians — and more and more, they do

The photograph is the young Robin Williams, with multicolored overalls, brown hair looking like it was cut with nail clippers, eyes alight with what can only be called life.

Last week, it was taped up in a hallway at Portland’s Lines for Life, operator of the local suicide prevention hot line, which on Tuesday received a record 88 calls, about twice the typical traffic.

The spike was driven not so much by people staring at a gun and their own hopelessness as by relatives and friends terrified about someone else’s desperation.

“They suddenly realized this can happen to anybody,” explains David Westbrook, chief operating officer at Lines for Life. “It happened to Robin Williams,” someone who looked to be on top of the world, with the fun seeming to bubble out in all directions.

“If it can happen to Robin, it can certainly happen to my brother.”

In Oregon, the chances of it happening are higher. Suicide rates run higher in the West in general – rugged reluctance to seek help? Looser family connections? – and Oregon’s rates, say the Lines for Life folks, typically run around 8th to 10th nationally. According to the Oregon Health Authority report “Violent Deaths in Oregon: 2012,” that year saw 110 homicides but 717 suicides, and Oregon’s suicide rate has been rising – especially among young people.

Recounts Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life, “Last week” – the week when the famous, wealthy and beloved Robin Williams decided he could no longer endure his life – “10 to 15 Oregonians took their lives. That includes one or two teenagers and one or two veterans. We’ve got to do better.”

Lines for Life uses a range of strategies to push back the dark. Its telephone lines (503-972-3456; 800-278-8255) are maintained by 150 trained volunteers, each committed to at least one four-hour stint a week. The conversations can go on for a long time, and when the call is about somebody else, the volunteers try to set up a three-way conversation.

“There’s sometimes a misperception that people don’t want to talk,” says Westbrook. “If someone’s still alive, you’re catching them at the right point.”

Every caller is different, every conversation is different. Tom Parker, the agency’s director of communications, tells of a caller holding a handgun, which he planned to use at the end of the call. The volunteer, an Iraq veteran, asked him about the gun, and talked about his own interest in firearms. The conversation went on, and at the end, the volunteer could hear the bullets being unloaded.

Veterans’ suicides are a scandal across the country, and Oregon has one of the country’s highest rates. Veterans are 8 percent of the Oregon population, and 27 percent of Oregon suicides. Oregon is one of just a few states without a major military base, cutting down on support for veterans, and an outsized proportion of the state’s veterans live in rural areas that can be distant from any services.

It’s part of what’s beyond Lines for Life outreach strategies. Since many suicides are preceded by unsuccessful attempts, and by desperate efforts to seek help, the agency works outreach through some hospital emergency rooms. For every suicide, there may be five to 20 unsuccessful attempts.

(Men and women, it seems, attempt suicide at similar rates. Men complete it more often, largely because they’re more likely to use handguns.)

With suicides among Oregonians between 10 and 24 rising sharply recently – from 54 in 2010 to an estimated 90 in 2013 – Lines for Life has some local projects for, in Holton’s words, “improving school climate.” That means training faculty members and student volunteers to recognize problems, and to learn to talk to people in difficulties.

To push back the darkness, we need to talk about things we still find uncomfortable or embarrassing or shameful. To help people move back from the edge, we need to talk openly about mental issues, and make connections.

“Forty-five years ago, we didn’t talk about cancer,” says Tom Parker. “We didn’t talk about addiction, except to say you’re a bum. Then along came Betty Ford.”

A high-profile celebrity suicide, says the research, can spur other suicides, what experts call contagion. But maybe, as the photo hanging in the Lines of Life hallway and the spike in its phone traffic suggest, it can also spur conversations that can push away the gun, or the pills, or the belt hanging from a doorway in a California mansion.

And maybe produce fewer occasions with people wondering, afterward, what they might have done differently.

“It’s such a riddle,” says Tom Parker.

“It’s the saddest funeral.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/17/14.

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