In 1965, Simon and Garfunkel recorded "Richard Cory," which was based on a 19th-century poem of the same name by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Both the poem and the song were about a man who was rich, handsome, successful and kind, the envy of all who knew him — and both ended with the same line: "And Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head."
Richard Cory comes to mind, of course, after last week's suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams. Williams was loved by generations of people for his brilliant standup, situation comedy and film work, both comedic and dramatic. He was admired for raising millions of dollars for charity through Comic Relief and for many years of tours entertaining American troops overseas. By all accounts, he was a kind and unpretentious man with a preternatural ability to make others laugh. According to his wife, he also was battling a recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease (which had not been made public), longstanding bouts of depression and addiction, and money troubles.
Williams had every tool at his disposal to battle his lifelong depression, from friends and family to money and the best doctors. Still, it wasn't enough. And what of the millions of lesser-known people who don't have those resources?
In the years after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, previously healthy Louisianans showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many battled depression — and some continue to do so. The same sad fate happened to many coastal residents after the 2010 BP oil disaster, when those who live and work along the Gulf of Mexico dealt with a tragedy that upended their lives.
Now try to imagine the effect those disasters would have on someone who was already suffering from severe depression or bipolar disorder. "Imagine living through this post-storm nightmare, trying to rebuild, with the stifling symptoms of severe mental illness," Cecile Tebo, then-Crisis Unit coordinator for the New Orleans Police Department, told Gambit in 2007. "Without strong emotional wellness, that experience is pushing otherwise 'normal' people over the edge, and their symptoms of depression, mania and psychosis are putting themselves and the community at risk."
Sadly, and infuriatingly, just as mental health statistics spiked across Louisiana, psychiatric resources were slashed statewide. In 2009, Gov. Bobby Jindal closed New Orleans Adolescent Hospital (NOAH) as a cost-cutting move, and Alan Levine, then state secretary of health, said beds would be added to Southeast Louisiana Hospital (SELH) in Mandeville. In 2012, Jindal closed SELH — without even notifying his Northshore legislative allies or other public officials in that area — leaving southeast Louisiana without a public mental health facility. The closure also cost St. Tammany Parish hundreds of well-paying jobs.
According to the American Association of Suicidology, an organization that tracks suicide in hopes of preventing it, Louisiana has a lower suicide rate than the nation as a whole. But the parish with the highest suicide rate in the state is also one of the wealthiest: St. Tammany.
If bipolar disease or depression affects you or someone you know, help is available. Here are some area resources:
• The United Way of Southeast Louisiana recommends those in its seven-parish service area call 2-1-1 staffed by VIALINK, which can put you in touch with mental health professionals or crisis counselors.
• If you or someone you know is in a behavioral health crisis, call the Metropolitan Crisis Response Team at (504) 826-2675. This resource is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.
• Individuals in crisis in Jefferson Parish can call (504) 832-5123.
• Baton Rouge's Crisis Intervention Center is staffed around the clock with trained counselors. Call (225) 924-3900, or 1-800-437-0303.
• Help is also available for residents of many other Louisiana parishes. A list of hotlines and help numbers is available at www.suicide.org.
• The National Suicide Prevention help line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) will connect you to a trained counselor in your area 24 hours a day.
Depression isn't a sign of weakness. It's not something to be waited out, toughed out or dismissed. Louisiana's (and America's) mental health system is nowhere near where it needs to be, but there is help out there.
Robin Williams was a uniquely gifted performer with a strong humanitarian streak. If anything at all good could come out of the tragedy that ended his life, we hope it will be to inspire someone, somewhere to get help before it's too late.