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When Depression Becomes Deadly

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Williams was also in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, his wife said in a statement released Aug. 14, according to media reports. He was not yet ready to share that publicly, she was reported saying.

People tend to want an explanation for suicide, Schneider says. While it’s true that physical illness can worsen depression, “it’s not explanatory,” he says. “It’s a risk factor.”

People often don’t take medicine correctly, Krakower says. His patients tell him they don't want the side effects of the medication. "People don't want to be labeled as being mentally ill," he says. When they take the medication, some feel that way, he says.

Even if they take the medication, once they start feeling better, he says, "they think they don't need their medicines." So, they stop taking them, and are worse off when depression hits again, he says.

The risk of suicide may rise when people first start antidepressant medications, according to the FDA. Some patients who stop taking their antidepressants may have suicidal thoughts, even when weaned off, Schneider says.

Why does depression turn deadly for some?

The pain of mental illness, often not understood by those not affected, can be unbearable, Schneider says. Those affected can have feelings of hopelessness and emptiness that many others can't empathize with, he says.

"Severe major depression can be just profound," he says. Some commit suicide not so much to end their lives as to get rid of the pain. Even with treatment, the feelings can persist, doctors know. ''Some people develop depression that is treatment-resistant," Krakower says.

For those whose depression is part of bipolar disorder, what may make them so prone to suicide attempts is the ''rapid switch from being happy to really, really sad," Krakower says.

Is there any way for loved ones to spot depression about to turn deadly?

Even for doctors, ''it's hard to predict who is going to make a suicide attempt," Schneider says. But there are sometimes warning signs and behaviors that may point to a potential suicide attempt.

One of the most urgent signs, which calls for immediate action, is talking about death or suicide.

Other suicide warning signs, according to Schneider, Krakower, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, include:

  • Talking about hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness
  • Feelings of being trapped, desperate, or anxious
  • Having persistent sadness or depression
  • Becoming more angry or irritable
  • Losing interest in life or loved ones
  • Having sleep problems
  • Contacting people and seeming to say goodbye

Identifying someone at risk of a suicide attempt is only half the battle, Schneider says. "It's hard to say exactly when they would make an attempt."

Not all suicide attempts are thought out or planned, Krakower says. "Suicide attempts can happen out of impulse," he says. "Something goes wrong and people just hurt themselves."

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