Photo credit: Andrea Lea Chase
Robin Williams Memorial
San Francisco, California - August 13, 2014: Fan art of Genie from Aladdin at the Robin Williams Memorial on the steps of the house used in Mrs. Doubtfire.
by Janet Schnell, MSW, LSW
As I was drawing to the end a very dynamic and thought provoking Survivor of Suicide Support Group meeting, my cell phone was buzzing out of control. Another suicide loss survivor’s phone also started to ring. She announced that Robin Williams had died from an apparent suicide. Needless to say, our meeting went into overtime discussing the impact his death had upon us.
Many people don’t realize there are twice as many people who die by suicide as by homicide. More people die by suicide than in car accidents. More than 40,000 Americans die by suicide annually. A suicidal thought brought on by depression is a serious condition that requires medical attention. But we don’t talk about it.
The sad reality is that severe mental illness continues to claim the lives of our brothers, fathers, sons, friends, wives, and daughters. When this is a loss that is close to us, we feel alone, ashamed, embarrassed, and that nobody wants to hear about our pain. When someone like Robin Williams dies who was loved and admired by many, it can bring up feelings of pain to suicide loss survivors.
I can’t help but to read the social media’s response to Robin’s death. A majority of responses have been positive and thoughtful. I have read about people responding with their own struggles with thoughts of suicide. But it is also very easy for people to react with skepticism and negative, hurtful comments blaming Robin and his family.
Someone who dies by suicide is not “weak,” “selfish,” “taking the easy way out,” or a “coward.” Suicidal depression is not a choice someone makes. They are in so much emotional pain, commonly known as "psych ache" by the suicide prevention specialists. They just want the pain to stop, and they don’t know any other way. Yes, they are desperate, and sometimes impulsive. Mental illness is not a “weakness.” It is a disease. It is a very unwelcomed feeling of desperation. No one deserves to suffer from depression, or to be judged and ridiculed.
Please don’t judge or make hurtful comments to suicide loss survivors. We struggle with our own demons, feelings of guilt, and asking why. Instead, be the shoulder to lean on - the listening ear without judgment and condemnation. Let suicide loss survivors and those with suicidal thoughts know you are there for them. Support each other during this very difficult time of national grief. Let people know you love them and you are thinking about them. Most importantly, let them know they are not alone.
Robin’s death has taught me I need to become more vocally active in discussing suicide prevention and to be vocal after a suicide occurs. I need to do so in honoring my brother, who died by suicide 19½ years ago. If his death and my experience as a suicide loss survivor can save one life – just one life – we will change our world. I would give up in a heartbeat not to be writing about suicide and the impact it has made in my life - just to have my brother beside me discussing life events. But I don’t get that choice. It was taken away from me when my brother thought he had no choice.
Through the life of our loved ones, their death speaks for better mental health treatment and the need for our community to understand to be less judgmental and more comforting to those who struggle. Key points to remember when talking with suicide loss survivors:
- Be respectful – just say you are sorry and leave it at that.
- Talk directly about suicide with your loved ones.
- Remember the person’s life without so much emphasis on how they died.
- Avoid assumptions about the mental history of the person who died. There is not one reason why someone who is suicidal and depressed dies by suicide. It is a multitude of reasons.
- Encourage people to get help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Janet Schnell, MSW, LSW, is President of Survivors of Suicide of Dubois County, Instructor for QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer), trainer for CALM (Counseling on Access to Means) and CONNECT (suicide response in postvention and support group facilitator training). She is a chapter author of Seeking Hope: Stories of the Suicide Bereaved. A 2011 graduate of the University of Southern Indiana, she has been an active member of the American Association of Suicidology, Indiana, Southwest Indiana, and Dubois County Suicide Prevention Coalition, and Quilt organizer for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Currently, she is an adjunct trainer with Vincennes University in Indiana. Janet can be reached by e-mail at 1JanetSchnell@Gmail.com or phone 812-630-6779.