Blog Post by Hollis Easter
Robin Williams died today, at 63. The Marin County Sheriff’s department released a press statement saying they suspect it of being suicide by asphyxiation, and there’s other news on their site.
There will be a media frenzy about this for the next little while, and a lot of people are going to be talking about it. I want to help people talk about it in a way that’s as respectful and safe as possible for vulnerable people, so here are a few thoughts and requests.
Be respectful about thoughts of suicide
Wherever you are, there are people near you who are struggling with their own thoughts of suicide. Some of them are going to feel strongly affected by Williams’s death, and the research shows that a small subset of that group will find that this news pushes their own thoughts of suicide into the forefront.
Please be careful how you talk about what happened with Robin Williams, because these folks will hear your words and may apply them to their own situations. Do you feel that he was a sick or weak person because he had these thoughts? How would that thought sound to these other folks? Did he “lose his battle” by acting on his thoughts of suicide? Be aware that, in the ears of a vulnerable person, you may be calling them weak too.
In particular, please don’t call suicide a “permanent solution to a temporary problem”. Whether or not the problems really are temporary, it doesn’t help the person at risk to have their troubles minimized—it just paints us as being out of touch. You don’t actually need to do that much talking about suicide itself; instead, get the person talking about what they’re feeling and why they’re considering suicide. It’s fine to help them see that these feelings may not last forever—but the “permanent solution” language is really toxic for a lot of people. Leave the labels behind and get the person talking.
Research suggests that about 5% of people (1 in 20) report thinking about suicide in any given year. That makes having thoughts of suicide seem pretty normal, but only a small group of people will act on those thoughts. If you look around, you will see people who are fighting—and winning—their own battle with suicide every day. Be respectful about how you talk about the issue.
People who’ve never struggled with suicide often seem to think that considering suicide is a choice. That, if only they knew how stupid it was to consider suicide, people would just stop thinking about it. I’ve worked on a suicide hotline for the last 15 years. Believe me when I say that most of the suicidal people I’ve talked to would have given anything to be able to make those thoughts go away. Be kind.
If you’re a person who has thoughts of suicide and the news about Williams is pushing your buttons, please reach out for help. If you live anywhere in the USA, you can dial 1-800-273-TALK and get the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is free and confidential and open 24/7.
Talk directly about suicide
It’s okay to use the words. Suicide. Killing yourself. Wanting to die.
We don’t need to be afraid of the words, and using clear language helps us communicate better. There’s no evidence to suggest that talking directly about suicide hurts vulnerable people, and there’s a lot of it showing that direct talk helps to reduce stigma and help vulnerable folks feel like they can talk openly about how they’re struggling.
“Committed suicide” isn’t great because it feels pretty judgmental (we commit sins). “Lost his battle” feels like it’s labeling him as weak.
So use the other words. It looks like Robin Williams died by suicide, may have killed himself, may have taken his own life. It’s okay to use the words. If you want to know more about the terms we use in the suicide intervention world, check out my guide and my other guide.
If you’re worried about someone you know, ask them whether they’re thinking about suicide.
Remember the whole person
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