August 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMNS

Tragedy and handling pain

The loss of native Detroiter Robin Williams puts mental health issues in the forefront. (Reed Saxon / AP)

Tragedy always reminds us of how precious life is, how important people are to us, but it is also a time to take a closer look at ourselves. The recent loss of actor and comedian Robin Williams brings increased attention to an illness that far too many people suffer from — substance use disorder and depression. Williams battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol for decades. Williams was quoted in an ABC News interview as saying that “drinking presents another side of yourself that even you don’t know.”

Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to combat depression. For others, drugs and alcohol lead to depression. Any addiction can trigger a multitude of negative feelings such as guilt, sadness, shame, hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, anger, anxiety and fear. These emotional experiences are very similar to those found in episodes of depression that occur without addiction.

Substance abuse and mental health issues impact every zip code, race, gender and socio-economic status. Sadly, none of us are immune. I know all too well, having lost two siblings who struggled with mental illness and substance abuse and tragically took their own lives. I watched them struggle with depression and substance abuse and benefit from treatment and revel in recovery. Understand that hope, treatment and recovery are possible.

If you, or someone you know needs help, please call the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority’s 24 Hour Crisis and Referral Hotline, at 800-241-4949, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255

According to Dr. Carmen McIntyre, chief medical officer at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA) “emotional disorders and addictions are very treatable; however, many people don’t realize that they need help, and many others are ashamed to seek help. The loss of Robin Williams, like Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this year, help highlight the seriousness of these disorders, and give us increased opportunities to educate our community about the severity of the illness and services available to them.”

Roughly 16 million adults in the U.S. suffered from major depression in the past year, and 12 percent of adults were addicted to alcohol, with 2-3 percent addicted to illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Yet less than 50 percent of these people received any treatment at all. Of those who received some treatment, less than 50 percent of those got adequate treatment.

In Wayne County, for the first time, DWMHA has integrated our services to deliver substance abuse treatment, relapse prevention as well as services for depression and other mental illnesses all within the same system. Mental health should be seen as a priority, and treated just the same as physical and behavioral health.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a true champion of quality mental health services, likes to remind us: “We need to treat diseases from the neck up the same as we treat those from the neck down.” We need to stop the stigma often associated with reaching out for mental health and addiction services.

Suicide attempts and depression should not be taken lightly. Bridging a gap between a healthy mind and body is a community responsibility that affects everyone. Noticing the signs of mental illness and substance use are key in preventing suicides and injuries as a result of attempted suicide and substance use disorder. The stigma around mental health and those who suffer in all forms of mental illness desire a need to be put to rest to improve community mental health.

The tragic loss of Robin Williams is a powerful reminder that even the most gifted are not immune from the power of the diseases of mental illness and substance abuse. Not even success and money are the key to happiness.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Good people are a tragedy to lose. We can and must do better.

Tom Watkins is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.