Like the misappropriated Chinese symbol for “crisis”, a tragedy like Robin Williams’ untimely death presents both a danger and an opportunity. As the world grieves the loss of a beloved and immensely talented entertainer, our compassion creates the space for a meaningful discussion of suicide and other mental health issues. The “danger” side of this is the tendency to engage in harmful action and toxic discourse that often stops vulnerable people from seeking help. Furthermore, it could drive suicidal thoughts. Is it possible to approach these issues with care and sensitivity in a public forum? Or does our desire for information overwhelm our need for compassion and understanding?
Losing anyone, even a stranger, to suicide feels oddly personal. I can’t look at the image above, or read it’s accompanying message (“Genie, you’re free”) without immediately becoming tearful and overwhelmed with sadness. Part of it is the loss itself, and the other, admittedly stronger, trigger is the painful and very visceral identification with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on anyone, and in many ways I’m grateful that most people will never have to carry that burden. But sometimes the ignorance of this struggle leads to a very narrow perspective, and as usual the ones who shout the loudest tend to get the most attention. To call the deceased a coward, as this Fox News host did, is perhaps the most hurtful and cruel criticism of all. Though the host has since apologized, this is a prime example of how very flawed and misguided the mainstream media are in their coverage of mental health issues.
I’m reminded of actor/writer Owen Wilson’s 2007 suicide attempt, and the speculation it continues to invite into his personal life, years later. Similarly, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ treatment of bipolar disorder has been well documented and discussed in public. The response to celebrities going public with their mental health problems is rarely met with kindness, empathy, or encouragement. I suppose you could argue that none of those sell papers or magazines, but why can’t any of the armchair analysis and voracious invasion of privacy lead to a more constructive inquiry into the nature of these problems?
I may not (yet) wield a huge influence on popular culture, but what I can do now is to fight the ignorance in my own way, which, it seems, is by sharing my personal life on the internet. There are various reasons why I haven’t written many posts on mental health in the past year, but judging by the response I got to my last post, maybe it’s time to sprinkle a bit of seriousness into the sea of sarcasm and saltiness.
Incidentally, after I wrote the first draft of this post, I found out that the NSPL saw the greatest number of calls in its history on Monday, following the news of Robin Williams’ death. Let’s hope that this terrible tragedy continues to inspire others to seek help.
You are not alone!