After Robin Williams died, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent a tweet that has been seen by as many as 69 million people. It pictures the Genie from Aladdin, a character voiced so memorably by Williams, with the caption, “Genie, you’re free.” What’s wrong with the tweet?
Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says, “If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it. Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.” According to The Washington Post, vulnerable people can be encouraged to commit suicide in the way a well-known person does, a phenomenon known as “suicide contagion” or “copycat suicide.”
It is understandable to wish Robin Williams well even after his death. For instance, Henry Winkler tweeted, “Robin you are an angel now!!” Jason Alexander tweeted, “I’m so sorry the earth couldn’t stay worthy of you. Hope happiness awaits you.” At the same time, we don’t want to say or do anything that unintentionally encourages others to take their lives. Suicide is never the answer.
Here’s another wrong way to talk about suicide: Making it seem inevitable for those with depression. We know that Robin Williams was suffering from what his publicist called “severe depression.” And we know that there is a strong link between depression and suicide. Research shows that two-thirds of those who complete suicide are depressed at the time of their deaths. The risk of suicide for those with major depression is 20 times that of the general population. This is a staggering fact, given that depression affects one in six persons in the United States.
However, suicide is not inevitable, even for those suffering from depression. As one psychotherapist and professor states, “the suicide of any one person . . . never is or was inevitable. As long as the suicidal person is alive, there is hope for change. Anything can happen in life at any moment to change the person’s situation, suffering or outlook.”
Tragically, as many as two thirds of people with depression do not realize they have a treatable illness and do not seek treatment. Only 50 percent of people diagnosed with major depression receive any kind of treatment. So if you are dealing with depression, get help. Know that mental illness is not a sin. Depression is caused by many factors, including heredity, biology, and life experiences. As with other diseases, help is both essential and available to you. If you know someone who is depressed, help them find help.
And know that suicide is never the answer, and is never inevitable. King David knew the pain of depression. He complained that “my bones are troubled. My soul is also greatly troubled” (Psalm 6:2-3). He felt “lonely and afflicted” (Psalm 25:16), and could say, “my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing” (Psalm 31:10). And yet he discovered that “the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9).
So can you.