On Monday, the world lost someone special. Robin Williams was found dead at age 63, and authorities said the cause of death was suicide. Williams' publicist said the actor had been dealing with severe depression and recently spent time in rehabilitation.
Every year about 30,000 Americans take their own lives, more than the number who die of homicide, and "there are twice as many deaths due to suicide than HIV/AIDS," according
to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
. Of those who seek treatment, 80 percent are treated successfully, while 15 percent of people who are clinically depressed take their own lives.
"Journalists in small towns are often reluctant to report that a person died by suicide if the death occurred in private, no one else was involved and the individual was not prominent in the community, but in the age of social media, more and more see a need to be an authoritative voice that quashes rumors quickly," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
, publisher of the Rural Blog. Others say covering up suicides reinforces the stigma surrounding them, which is a tragedy in itself. As one weekly editor publisher put it, "We don't do the
widow any favors when we don't do our job informing people about the important
events in their community and they approach the widow and ask, 'I was sorry to hear about Fred. How did he die?'"
Social media have complicated the topic in other ways. Robin Williams was praised for his stellar performances in "Good Will Hunting," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Jumanji." He was also the voice of Genie in the animated film "Aladdin." His death generated massive coverage of his passing, including tributes to him and his quotes from movies. On social media, many have posted a picture of Genie and Aladdin with the quote, "Genie, you're free."
Such posts carry the message that suicide is "freeing" or an acceptable way to deal with depression, so some experts fear media about Williams' unfortunate choice may prompt others to commit suicide, Linda Carroll writes
for NBC News
. More people than usual called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
on Tuesday, and Lisa Furst of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York
said Williams' death was one reason why.
Dr. Alex Crosby, a medical epidemiologist in the division of violence prevention at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
, said that following Marilyn Monroe's 1962 suicide when she was 36, "Researchers found a statistically significant increase in suicides across the nation in white females in their 30s and early 40s in the year after she died."
This is a "contagion effect," Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
, told NBC. "I believe it also accounts for things like these mass shootings. Almost anything you see, there can be copycats and a contagion."
Taryn Phaneuf of the Bowling Green Daily News
in Kentucky used the attention focused on Williams to do a local story
in which experts and families that had suffered suicide urged more discussion of it.
Journalists should guard against coverage that could lead vulnerable people or those who identify with the dead celebrity to believe that suicide is the way to deal with their pain, said Dr. Lanny Berman, senior adviser to the American Association of Suicidology
, told NBC: "When someone is suffering from a non-specific loss of hope, they may think, 'My god, if Robin Williams couldn't hack it given all his fame and fortune and adoration, what hope do I have?'"
How can writers avoid perpetuating that idea? The suicidology association has recommendations
for writing about suicide. It makes three main points: More than 50 research studies have shown that particular types of news coverage can increase in suicide among some people; the risk rises when stories detail the method of suicide or use "dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage" that "sensationalizes or glamorizes death," Al Tompkins writes
for The Poynter Institute
The experts ask that the suicide not be referred to as "successful" (or, if the attempt fails, "unsuccessful"); that pictures of grieving family and friends be avoided; and that a suicide not be described as "inexplicable" or "without warning." They urge journalists to present suicide as a social issue, ask experts for advice, provide crisis-center phone numbers and run a list of "Warning Signs" and a "What to Do" list so people can learn how to respond if they think a family member or friend is contemplating suicide. They sau nearly all people who commit suicide show warning signs, which include:
- Expressions of suicidal thinking in words, poems, diaries, posts, etc.
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Little sense of meaning or purpose
- Struggle with anxiety, agitation and insomnia
- Expression of feeling trapped, or like being between a rock and a hard place
- Feelings of hopelessness, that things will never change for the better
- Moving away from things that represent a reason to live: work, school, hobbies and people who matter
- Excessive anger or rage
- Increased recklessness and/or risk taking behavior
- Dramatic mood changes, such as shifts between being OK to being depressed.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please do not hesitate to get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and here is a list
of crisis helpline services. Every life matters.
Robin Williams' character in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society," teacher John Keating, said, "To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless ... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer: That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"