5 Inappropriate Responses to Robin Williams’ Suicide
1. Suicide is selfish/cowardly, how could he do that to all the people who loved him?
This is an extremely common reaction to any suicide, and not only is it just factually wrong that suicide is selfish or something that you do to other people, it also continues the stigma against suicide, leading to fewer people seeking treatment or opening up when they’re struggling. It is undeniable that suicide can hurt the loved ones of the individual who commits the act, but it’s not something that tends to be done lightly. In the case of Robin Williams, it came after a long battle with depression, which means that it was a consequence of an illness. In case you didn’t know, illnesses can kill people and mental illnesses are no different.
I have never met someone who was suicidal who did not give a great deal of thought to how their actions would impact their loved ones. Wanting to stop hurting is not the same as wanting to hurt the people who love you, nor is it selfish. Additionally, there is nothing cowardly about living with a great deal of pain for an extended period of time and wanting it to end. It actually makes perfect sense. If it’s cowardly to not want to be in constant, overwhelming pain anymore, then label me a coward because depression hurts like nothing else you can imagine.
2. Isn’t it ironic that someone who was so funny and brought so much joy was depressed?
No. Depression can and does affect every type of person. You cannot tell if someone is depressed based on their external appearance or hobbies. Many people with depression are highly skilled at faking happiness, and being depressed doesn’t mean losing all joy or laughter: it just makes it a whole lot more difficult. Additionally, humor often can come out of pain, be used as a coping mechanism, or be used to cover up pain. Statements like this one once again build a stereotype that people with depression are a monolith of individuals who are all constantly pessimistic and sad. This is far from the truth. People with depression present in all kinds of ways, and someone’s death is really not the appropriate time to be commenting on irony.
3. He had no reason to be depressed, he had accomplished so much and had such a great life.
This kind of statement shows little to no understanding of how depression works. As previously stated, depression is an illness. It is not a reaction to a bad situation (although negative circumstances can trigger it). Let’s try this with a different disease: “He had no reason to get cancer, he had accomplished so much and had such a great life.”
Makes tons of sense doesn’t it? It makes just about as much sense when applied to depression. Depression is not a choice, an emotion, or a mood. It is not something you can just jolt yourself out of by reminding yourself that your life is great. It isn’t because you have depression.
4. He should have known how much people cared about him/how much he meant.
In many ways, this sentiment can be helpful: reminding those who are suffering that they’re loved and cared for can be extremely helpful. The problem is that someone else’s mental illness is not about you. You cannot save them by telling them what they mean to you (and it will only drive you crazy if you do), and the way that they feel about themselves is not contingent upon validation from others. It can’t hurt to let someone know this and to validate them, but at the end of the day what is effective for treating mental illness is good therapy and possibly medication. You can’t cure an illness with love.
5. “Genie you’re free”
In some ways this image is truly a meaningful response: it’s true that Williams is not suffering anymore. It’s true that he doesn’t have to fight depression or addiction anymore. It’s true that in some sense he has escaped from these problems. Unfortunately, it does a lot to romanticize suicide, painting it as freedom or a solution. This is not the place to debate whether or not suicide is ever justified, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to compare suicide with a moment of being released from slavery, particularly when suicide contagion is a documented phenomenon. Especially for secular individuals who struggle with suicidality, this image seems to imply some sort of life or freedom after death that is not particularly empathetic when there are suicidal individuals who don’t believe that (and when many religious individuals decry suicide as a sin). This kind of response doesn’t capture the tragedy of the situation, the way that individuals have to grapple with their mental health when they’re suicidal, or the things that can actually be done to help.
The only response that I can think of that is appropriate is sadness, grief, and sympathy for his family and loved ones. I am so sad that this happened, and I only hope that we can help others from feeling that they have to make the same choice. Understanding is nearly impossible, but we can try.
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. Yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
– David Foster Wallace