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Warning signs can predict suicidal behavior

If a wealthy, successful celebrity like Robin Williams, who had access to the best treatment for mental illness, succumbed to depression, where’s the hope for others?

That’s a logical question in the wake of Williams’ suicide earlier this month, said Dr. John Santopietro, a psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for behavioral health at Carolinas HealthCare System.

But he warns against despair.

“Please don’t be discouraged by this because even though this was so tragic, if people get the right treatment at the right time, 60 to 80 percent recover,” Santopietro said. “We definitely have treatments, and treatment helps in the vast majority of cases.”

About 39,000 suicides are reported each year in the United States, compared with 16,000 homicides. “That’s way too many, and it’s heartbreaking,” Santopietro said. “But relative to the number of people who suffer with mental illness – tens of millions of people – it’s actually a very rare event.”

Interviews with people who have come close to committing suicide show that “the vast majority wish they hadn’t done it,” Santopietro said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. … The vast majority of people who attempt suicide don’t eventually die by suicide. They go on to die of other things.”

Santopietro urged people with a mental illness to seek help. “The good news,” he said, “is there’s plenty of resources and there’s no wrong door” to enter the mental health system.

Certain behaviors can serve as warning signs to friends and relatives, he said. What to watch for:

• Expressions of hopelessness and helplessness.

• Depression.

• Previous suicide attempts.

• Daring or risk-taking behavior.

• Personality changes.

• Giving away prized possessions.

• Talking of suicide, such as, “You'd be better off without me,” or “Maybe I won't be around.”

• Securing lethal means, such as a gun or an accumulation of pills.

• Lack of interest in the future.

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