At about 10:20 p.m. Monday – while social media and the Internet and TV outlets were overrun with the news of the suicide of comedian/movie star Robin Williams – four people walking along a trail near S.C. 51 came to an abrupt stop.
A body lay in the woods behind the Barnyard Flea Market, just feet from the state line. The walkers flagged down a passing cop, and York County deputies rushed to the scene. The county coroner rolled in.
The victim, a 33-year-old North Carolina man, had been reported missing, police reports show. He suffered a gunshot wound to his head. The forensics unit and the crime scene people fanned out in the dark to work the scene under starlight, not media spotlights.
By Tuesday morning – when TV news programs were showing pictures of a shrine set up at Williams’ San Francisco-area home, and tweets from the rich and famous honoring his memory were piling up – York County investigators and coroners had ruled the Fort Mill death a suicide.
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“I had no idea, and I was here all night,” a woman who lives in a row of townhouses just yards from where the body was found said Tuesday morning, as she watched her young children play. “I heard of Robin Williams and suicide, but this happened almost in my backyard.”
The death was the 14th suicide in York County this year, according to the coroner’s office. At least 80 attempted suicides have been reported this year, sheriff’s records show.
In 2013, 41 people committed suicide in York County, coroner’s records show. Other than a December murder-suicide involving a former member of the Winthrop University Board of Trustees and her husband, none were reported by local news outlets.
In Rock Hill, where 88 people have committed suicide since 2000, officers last responded to a suicide on Aug. 4, police records show. There was no shrine and no talking heads on TV calling anything a tragedy. It was, according to a police report, a Rock Hill man who died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest near the Catawba River. He was 49.
Most media, including The Herald and heraldonline.com, generally report on a suicide only if it involves a public figure, if it occurred in a public place, or involving a standoff with police.
Robin Williams’ suicide after years of battling depression and substance abuse clearly was news. He was a star, rightly beloved for his wit and compassion, his service to veterans and the poor, and more. Because Williams was famous, President Barack Obama took a break from running the country to comment, as did countless celebrities.
When regular people kill themselves, fatherless or motherless children are heartbroken, mortgages and other bills go unpaid. Regular people who take their own lives get no statements from the White House.
“Suicide is almost always the result of untreated or under-treated mental illness,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest nonprofit, grassroots mental health education, advocacy and support organization. In 2010, according to NAMI, 524 people in South Carolina died from suicide.
Williams himself had been undergoing treatment for depression and substance abuse for years, according to his publicist and his family.
Suicides more prevalent among veterans
Alarmingly, the rate of suicide among soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than double that of the civilian population. When soldiers or former soldiers kill themselves – and it has happened to area soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – it almost never makes the news.
York, Chester and Lancaster counties have sent hundreds of Reserve, National Guard and active duty soldiers to these wars.
Joe Medlin is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, serving as command sergeant major of the S.C. Army National Guard 178th Combat Engineers Battalion based in Rock Hill. In his civilian job as York County’s veterans services officer, he helps veterans – including many just returned from war – find the services they need, including treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Medlin called Williams’ death “tragic.”
“However, over 22 veterans per day commit suicide,” he said. “This is double, sometimes triple, the rate of non-military suicides. I am grateful for the time Robin Williams spent on USO tours entertaining the troops, but where is the outrage over the deaths of our nation’s veterans?
“Have we become callous to this? Have we resigned to this simply being a cost of war?”
Medlin said the number of suicides among soldiers this year is well more than the same period in 2013.
“To eliminate or mitigate this epidemic, it will take action from all of us.” he said. “This is not something that the VA alone can fix. No longer can we can simply ignore this and pretend that it’s not happening. What can we do? Realize that most veterans are not crazed killers. These are folks just like everyone else who want a shot at a decent job, a family, an education and to continue to contribute to society.
“Too often it is the ‘Veteran robs store’ headline that causes readers to think that veterans are dangerous. Governmental leaders can fund programs to address veteran homelessness and other social needs. Most of America does not truly realize the tremendous sacrifice that veterans, their families and their employers have made fighting our nation’s wars. We can all do something.”
Rock Hill Police spokesman Mark Bollinger was a street officer and a crisis negotiator for 18 years before taking on the job of dealing with the public and reporters. He talked to suicidal people holding guns to their own heads or to the heads of loved ones. Some of those threatening suicide left by ambulance for mental health treatment. Others left in the coroner’s van.
“It is an unfortunate reality that suicide threats, attempts and actual suicides are a real and normal part of police work,” Bollinger said.
Out there behind that row of Fort Mill houses, there is no marker, no shrine, no flowers.
There is only trampled grass where police officers and coroners say a 33-year-old man killed himself.