According to Twitter, today would have been Robin Williams’s 69th birthday. In honor of that, I dug up something I wrote just after he died, which is still relevant today.
Here are some myths and facts about suicide and mental illness:
- If he/she/they had had more/better friends, he/she/they would not have died. I addressed this somewhat in my last post, but I will keep saying it until people understand: That is not how depression works. Mental illness does not follow this kind of logic. Would you say that a cancer patient might have pulled through if only they had better social support? Yes, a solid network of friends is important when it comes to overcoming mental illness, but it certainly does not prevent suicide. When someone is in a suicidal mindset, they are not thinking about their loved ones. They are just thinking about the pain that they are in. I am NOT saying that their choice is selfish, but that the level of suffering that comes with clinical depression is so great that you are not capable of thinking of anything else. Have you ever had a kidney stone? Were you thinking about the people who would be inconvenienced by a commitment you were missing? Maybe it crossed your mind, but I would be willing to bet that your primary concern was how much pain you were in and how to make it stop.
- He/she/they was/were not brave enough to keep fighting. Suicide has nothing to do with bravery. Again, mental illness does not follow this kind of logic. Suggesting that people with suicidal thoughts are cowardly is counter-productive. That kind of negativity only serves to further beat down individuals who are already struggling. This same argument applies to calling those who have died by suicide selfish.
- People with depression just need to be stronger and get over it. When I am feeling upset, I really try to avoid saying that I feel “depressed” because depression isn’t equal to sadness. Depression is a pervasive state of being that transcends more fleeting moods. There is a reason why a diagnosis of clinical depression requires that symptoms be persistent for a minimum of two weeks: Because depression is more than just feeling low or sad for a short while. Think about it. If it were so easy to “snap out of it,” why would anyone kill themselves?
- But he/she/they didn’t seem depressed. This plays into the myth that depression has to look a certain way. Most of us have a picture in our minds of what we think depression looks like, and while there most likely exist cases that fit this image, no two cases are identical. Everyone copes differently, and there is no way to know for certain what someone else is thinking and feeling. Some people prefer not to show their emotions and may seem stoic or even sad when they feel fine. Others project a similar demeanor in response to the pain they are in. Some use humor to cover how they are feeling. Others joke constantly because they feel happy and want to share it. It is impossible to paint a picture of depression because no one picture could accurately encompass every experience.
- He/she/they just wanted attention. Suicide is not something to trivialize, and that is what this statement does. I hear this a lot in response to people who use means with lower lethality for a suicide attempt. This phenomena stems from the stigma I have been talking about. When we teach people that they are weak or lesser than if they seek help for mental illness, it becomes difficult to say “I need help” or “I am depressed/thinking about hurting myself.” When you feel you can’t express your pain in a healthy or productive way, it comes out by other means. Are the individuals in these cases seeking attention? Technically yes, in that they desperately want and need help that they do not know how to seek. There are much easier ways to get attention. That is not what suicide is about, and it is insensitive and stigmatizing to claim otherwise.
- “Genie, you’re free.” This quote circulated Twitter for days after Robin Williams died, and it really bothered me, as both a mental health professional and as a person. I need to explain why this quote in this context made me so angry. Sure, it sounds poetic. But let’s take a minute to really think about what this statement implies. Essentially this quote is stating that, because he is dead, Robin Williams is now “cured” of his mental illness. After a celebrity dies by suicide, the suicide rate goes up for a short while, and the implication that death is freeing is a dangerous one. Imagine you have been struggling with suicidal thoughts. You hear that Robin Williams, a world-famous actor, has killed himself. You then see a huge outpouring of emotion from his fans saying that he is now “free.” Suddenly that tweet sounds like an argument in favor of ending your life. Although it is true that asking someone if they are having suicidal thoughts will not cause them to become suicidal, saying to a friend, “I’m worried about you. Have you had thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself?” is hugely different from asserting that suicide is somehow a cure for mental illness, and when it comes down to it, that is what this quote is saying. Please do not romanticize tragedy. It’s dangerous.
If you are thinking of hurting yourself, please reach out. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (or 366 days this year). They provide support and help for those in need and information about long-term services.