REACH OUT AND HELP!

Many of this week’s headlines focused on the suicide of “yet another TV child star.”  This week’s death was that of Andrew Koenig, the actor best known for his role as “Boner” in the ABC sitcom Growing Pains.

That his suicide – as any suicide – is a tragedy was best illustrated by his family, friends and colleagues, all of whom described him as being loving, sensitive, and an activist who was concerned about the environment and about the rights of oppressed people everywhere.  And yes, he happened to have been be a talented actor.

What I take issue with is the emphasis placed on his having been “a star,” implying a sinister connection to his mental state.

Anyone interested in better understanding suicidology will discover that there is, in fact, a vast array of reasons leading people to take their own lives. They vary from chronic physical pain to the inconsolable pain of having been physically or emotionally abused; the death of a loved one; the loss of one’s income; a marriage ending in a bitter divorce, the loneliness and isolation of old age, and chronic depression.

Ironically, the loudest voice of reason heard after the discovery of Koenig’s body was from his father, actor Walter Koenig.  One has to wonder how he even mustered the energy to speak.  Yet, his heart-wrenching plea was expressed to anyone feeling as desperate as his son must have felt. He begged those suffering from depression to seek help, to know that there are people who love them and professionals who are able to help them.  The Koenig family also asked that donations in Andrew’s memory be made to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.  Clearly, this father’s wish is to spare anyone from suffering as his son must have suffered, leaving loved ones to deal with their own devastating pain.

As a society we should have learned this long ago, but it is becoming imperative that the majority of people be educated about the warning signs of mental illness.  We cannot stay idly by and pretend not to see what we see and/or not to know what to do even when we admit to seeing it.

Is it not time for us to focus on the triggers that lead to suicide?  Genetic predispositions certainly play a role in adding to the pain in some people’s lives, but not all.  Others may fall upon hard times and have no skills upon which to draw.  Yet, when we notice behaviors that lead us to believe that something is amiss with anyone we care about, do we not owe it to ourselves and to them to pay attention and to take action?

Perhaps the problem is that too many of us believe that we’re being respectful by not shaming those whom we care about into believing that we’re desperately concerned about them.  Perhaps too many of us believe that it’s best to stay out of someone’s private life and just take care of ourselves.

Anyway you think about this, it remains a problem that society must attend to more effectively if we are to save good people who just happen to be suffering – mainly in silence.  And it matters not whether the person is famous, well-educated, poor or rich.  That is all irrelevant.

It also doesn’t matter how Koenig chose to end his life.  What matters is that he did so and that he’s left behind many people who loved and admired him. For whatever reasons that we’re not privy to, that love and admiration were not enough to relieve his agony.

It has been reported that he had suffered from depression and that he had stopped taking his medication. It’s no secret that some pain can only be relieved by medication and those who suffer from depression or anxiety can be helped enormously from any number of medications that do alleviate such debilitating states. Yet, it is not uncommon for people on medication to discontinue taking what has been prescribed once they begin to feel better. In states of greater equilibrium, they feel cured and do not understand the consequences of going off their medication. That is why those who are medicated should be seen by their prescribing psychiatrist and/or the psychotherapist who is offering them a safe place to talk about their progress, lack of progress, mood swings, lack of sleep, too much sleep, lack of appetite or over-eating. These are the tell-tale signs of those who are ill at ease in their own skin and whose judgment often leads them to misunderstand how others perceive them, appreciate them, love them.  Worse still, wth feelings of isolation and despair, they ultimately plan – as Andrew Koenig clearly planned – to end their lives.

What must not be ignored is that he did so in the most classic way, and that’s what needs attention, not the fact that he happened to have once been a TV star.

Apparently, he gave up his apartment a month prior to his death. He also gave away most of his worldly possessions and told everyone he was going on a vacation. And, yes, he did write a “despondent letter” to his father, but it arrived too late for his father or anyone to intervene.

As a psychotherapist and as the daughter of a mother who suffered from major depression, my heart goes out to Koenig’s family and friends.  More to the point, my heart aches for the victim himself. Whatever personal “growing pains” he had, and for however long he suffered from them, either he was not given the necessary care or he denied the care needed to beat the odds.

For those feeling depressed and totally overwhelmed by life’s stressors, we know that they cannot fight this battle alone. There are local mental health centers that can be contacted as well as public clinics, private psychiatrists or psyhcotherapists, or any one of the hotlines listed in every telephone book’s Yellow Pages (e.g. The American Association of Suicidology, 1-800-272TALK).  Most importantly, THEY MUST BE REASSURED THAT THERE IS HELP to be found. NO ONE DESERVES TO SUFFER IN SILENCE.  That is surely a recipe for disaster.

These are difficult economic times. Some private physicians will not accept insurance or offer reduced fees. But, those who are suffering need not lose heart; there are many agencies that arrive at manageable fees and there are those of us in private practice who accommodate those who need help.

We all can help by not remaining silent and by offering an outstretched hand.

As with any trauma in life, we never know when or if we will ever be the one in need of another’s outstretched hand.  If for no other reason, shouldn’t we do for others what we might need done for us?

~ Linda