For some reason it’s easier to talk about people dying from lung cancer, car crashes or even murder than it is to talk about people killing themselves.

Suicide is a leading cause of death, much more common than any of the three killers mentioned above. It’s a major public health problem and one that can be prevented with treatment. But for too long we have considered it to be a private matter, and let families suffer quietly on their own.

The comedian Robin Williams’ death by suicide this week has put the subject on the front pages, and the coverage has already corrected some false beliefs about who kills themselves and why. Brave families, like the survivors of state Rep. Paul McGowan, who took his own life in July, have chosen to talk in public about what might have only been whispered about in the past.

Talking about these deaths will save lives, just as talking about the dangers of tobacco and drunken driving has saved lives. To prevent suicide we have to understand it.

The secrecy around suicide was well intentioned but destructive. Newspapers like this one would not write about someone killing themselves unless that person was famous or did so in a public place. The silence stopped information from spreading. It also made people suffering with suicidal thoughts think that they were alone.

Why were we silent? Because people were ashamed. Suicide looked like failure in life.

That’s wrong. Millions of marriages break up. Millions of people are diagnosed with fatal diseases. Millions lose their jobs. Most of them don’t kill themselves. The ones who do have a disease that stops them from seeing the way out.

Robin Williams was not a faliure. Neither was Paul McGowan.

Statistics tell us that suicide victims are most often white males between the ages of 45 and 64. Members of this group were hit hard by the economic upheaval of the last seven years. They may have been taught to hide their emotions, even from their friends. They may have been told that they are supposed to give help, not ask for it.

There is rarely a single reason that people kill themselves. Alcohol or drug abuse is often present. Depression is, too.

Intervention will save lives. If we know someone at risk, we can help them find the services they need through agencies like the Maine Suicide Prevention Program‘s 24/7 crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112. We can also help by looking at mental health in ways that don’t make people ashamed of being sick.

Suicide is too big a problem to be kept secret. It’s time to find a better way to talk about it.

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