Talking about suicide and Robin Williams’s death

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

Williams’s wife has asked that we remember Robin Williams primarily by honoring the man he was, not merely by examining the way he died.

He lived a life that meant a lot to us. He was a brilliant comedian whose imitations inspired me as a child, whose ability to improvise staggers me with its breadth and clarity. He knew timing. He did good work and helped us to look at some important, difficult things in life, and he helped us do it with a twinkle in our eyes. Turns out that he was also struggling with depression, possibly bipolar disorder, and thoughts of suicide.

It’s important to talk openly and honestly about suicide, and to grieve for the loss we feel. We feel hurt by his death, and feel that he was taken from us too soon. That’s real, and that’s fine to talk about. But let’s refrain from making Williams a caricature of his own life. Suicide was a part of it, sure, but let’s not reinvent his whole life in this context.

Avoid assumptions about Williams’s treatment history

A lot of the initial stories have focused on Williams’s alleged history of struggling with bipolar disorder, and I’ve read a ton of Facebook statuses and tweets saying “if only he could have gotten treatment” or “I wish he’d known there was help available”.

This is well-intentioned but not really that helpful. We don’t know whether Williams was receiving treatment or not, but the sad truth is that treatment doesn’t always work. Medicine is imperfect. People react to different drugs and therapies differently, and there’s no magic solution out there. The field of psychiatry is getting better at treating bipolar disorder, and there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful, but it’s not anywhere close to 100% yet.

Remember, most people with thoughts of suicide want to stop having them. If treatment were easy and fully effective in all cases, don’t you think most people would have taken that option already?

If it helps you to understand why this sort of statement is unhelpful, imagine that Williams had died of cancer. Would it feel useful to say “oh, if only he’d known that treatment was available!” or “he should have fought harder”?

Would it help his family to hear that people made those assumptions about how easily Williams could have gotten better? Remember that the survivors of suicide loss are all around us, too.

Do encourage people to seek help

For a lot of people, talking about their thoughts of suicide helps them to go away. Some people need the help of a trained professional, and some people need drug treatment or hospitalization. But a lot of people just need a caring person to listen. If someone starts telling you about their own thoughts of suicide in the aftermath of this, stay present and listen.

Ask them why they’re feeling that way. Let them talk about the reasons for it. Start with the feelings. Don’t try to shove reasons for living down their throats—they won’t be able to breathe. They know there’s stuff worth living for; let them talk about the reasons they’re thinking about dying.

And encourage them to keep talking, to you and to others. As I said above, invite people to talk to the NSPL at 1-800-273-TALK or call a crisis line or reach out to other caregivers.

Avoid assuming it’s suicide

We know that Robin Williams has died, and the coroner has preliminarily ruled it a suicide. That said, we still don’t know for sure—they’ve also said that the investigation continues and there will be a press conference tomorrow. There can be benign (non-suicidal) reasons for a person dying by asphyxia at home. Let’s do our best to refrain from contributing to the frenzy about suicide until the professionals have reached their conclusions. Actually, let’s do our best to hold back the frenzy even afterwards.

Edited to add (2014-08-13): the Marin County coroners have released information saying that they’re pretty sure that Williams’s death was suicide, and that there’s no reason to suspect foul play. They’re still checking for other possibilities, but it looks like suicide at this point.

Talk about suicide and mental health

This is a big one. This is what we need to be doing if we want to prevent deaths by suicide in the long term. There remains a huge amount of social stigma around thoughts of suicide and mental health concerns in general, and it’s still hard for people to get help.

Tons of our hotline callers tell us they feel they can’t talk to their doctors or families about the way they’re feeling because they fear people won’t understand, will judge them, will label them, will lock them up, or simply won’t listen. We can and should do better.

So let’s talk about it, and not just in the gossip-ridden aftermath of a celebrity’s death. Let’s talk about expanding access to health care for all citizens, and then let’s make sure that we train health care workers about mental health AND build systems that give them enough patient contact time to have these crucial conversations.

Let’s make it easier to get access to mental health care, and let’s fund agencies that do the work. Let’s have the hard conversations about how we care for people who struggle with suicide in our communities, and let’s actively seek the voices of the people who struggle so we don’t make too many assumptions about what would help.

There’s a whole group of professionals who’ve learned a lot about how suicide happens and what we can do to prevent it. I’m one of them. We’re doing our best to get the messages out, but we need help. Will you help us? Join a suicide awareness group or help out with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Talk to your legislators about securing funding for mental health and crisis organizations, and ask them to help make that funding a lasting priority. Talk to your family and friends about suicide, and let’s start treating it like a public health topic rather than a sin.

Most of all, let’s keep talking—and do it with respect and kindness in our hearts.

(My background: I run a suicide hotline and served for years on the national governing board for crisis hotlines. I teach several different suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention curricula, and if you’d like more information, please ask. Remember that if you need to talk to someone about thoughts of suicide, there’s probably a crisis hotline near you. 1-800-273-TALK is a great starting point anywhere in the USA.)

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48 thoughts on “Talking about suicide and Robin Williams’s death

  1. Nice piece Hollis, thanks for posting the Lifeline number. Note however, you have a typo the first time it is mentioned. The correct number is as you list it later, 1-800-273-TALK.

    Shari Sinwelski
    Associate Project Director
    National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

  2. Good piece, Hollis. As a survivor of chronic depression who had suicidal thoughts, I would like to say that for me when someone suggested that suicide is a “permanent action to a temporary problem,” it caused me to not act on those thoughts, in the hopes that somehow, sometime, the depression would lift and I could begin to live again. The idea that the pain of my depression, which seemed interminable, could have an end without my having to take such a drastic action to end it myself, actually did help me defer action and try other tactics until I found something that worked. The other piece of counsel that was particularly useful was not to take irreversible action when I was at my lowest. It took a long time, with baby steps, to regain hope and even experience joy again, but it did happen for me, and could be possible for others, too. I pray this will be the case for others struggling right now.

    1. I’m grateful to you for sharing these thoughts, Joanna, and I’ve quoted them in my article about the “permanent solution” language. I really like the admonition to avoid irreversible action in those lowest moments. I’m so glad you’re feeling hope and joy these days.

  3. Thank you for your timely and sensitive article. I have shared it on facebook and am hopeful that others will gain some insight.

  4. When my psychiatrist told me that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” I thought, yes, that is what I want. A permanent solution. No more trying different meds, talking about what I’m sad/anxious about, appointments, groups, etc. Permanent. Yay.
    The words really didn’t help, they almost encouraged me to do it. It also felt like my feelings were being minimized. Thank you for your insightful post.

    1. Thanks so much for writing, Anne. I’ve included your words on a separate page talking about the “permanent solution” language, and I’m grateful for your contribution to the discussion. It’s so hard when you’re already feeling down and then it feels like other people minimize your feelings. I’m glad to hear that you’re still making it through.

  5. Thank you very much for this posting – we were in a family meeting with the medical team today for our daughter who currently is suffering severe depression including multiple suicide attempts as she feels there is no meaning to life and can not see beyond the problems in her health and traumas in her life that continue to persist to trouble her thoughts today. You have given much perspective and insight to this illness of which we have yet so little understanding and ability to process at this time.

    Grateful Parent NZ

    1. My suggestion is to go online, and enter “The Emotion Code.” We all carry emotional baggage and it can be also inherited. Find someone that releases these emotions, as they can be locked within the body, yet they are so easy to release and make a difference to ones health and well-being. There is a list of Practitioners on the website – and 4 in NZ that have completed this training, with “The Body Code.” Worth a try for your beautiful daughter, and could be the answer to her problems. Good luck and god bless. Doreen – NZ.

  6. I have battled suicide much….just everything unraveling at once and I know My heavenly home is just over that “shadow of death” …My heart knows some of what Robin felt…the doom of addiction, the fear of failing yet again, and in my case, worries and struggles …I’m tired of ppl who have NEVER walked in areas of addiction judging those who have…it hits every class of ppl on earth…He was hilarious and smart and I am saddened , but I understand. He thought everyone around him, after the shock\, would be better off without him…Praying for his family….they will question themselves much over this..God bless and help all of us that struggle..

  7. I must pay a tribute to Robin Williams. I met Robin at the Seble Townhouse in Sydney back in the late 80s when he was doing a press junket for Good Morning Vietnam. I was with Kim Adamson who was my producer at 91FM at the tIme. We were the last of a long line of press people who had been allotted interviews. We sat down talked about being a Disc jockey and The Movie of course, and just got on like a house on fire, we talked and laughed and swapped storys I told him about New Zealand (he hadnt been here at that time)our extinct bird the Moa and about katipo spiders and he dreamed up this scenario re a farting animal that mowed your lawns.He talked of his friendship with the great Comedian(Maude Fricker) Johnathan Winters and of how he visited his great friend in Rehab from time to time. Winters was also a manic Depressive. I have nothing but great memorys of that wonderful day. And later Peter Downer told me that Robin had said it was the most enjoyable interview he had in ages.
    As a person who suffers from BiPolar2 I can relate to how Robin felt about life and himself,the self doubt, the demons and the fear,and the constant battle fighting depression,the days when its hard to get out of bed and the fear that most people have with mental illness and how many so called friends have distanced themselves when they discover that I am not the happy go lucky Muzza they have always thought I was. And the people who say naff things like oh get a life buddy. I have been blessed with a great life and close friends(outside the media) who have steered me through my many meltdowns and helped ward off the demons etc.
    So Robin rest in Peace mate,I hope you were lucky to have had mates who helped you on your bumpy ride. The world loves you and always will and you will always have a place in the heart of this mad old retired DJ.

  8. I fell in love several years ago. I made a major change in my life, moved to his location and started living with him. After a few months, it began to feel uneasy. I was worried about us. My doctor suggested taking an antidepressant. This was when I was in my late 40s. My feelings of doom morphed into constant depression and then one day seemingly out of the blue he told me he no longer loved me and we had to separate. I clearly remember closing my eyes and feeling like I was being sucked down into a whirlpool of blackness. After a few days, my thoughts turned to suicide and I wasted no time in trying. I could not stand thinking what I was thinking and just wanted my thoughts to go away. I took a lot of pills, but he found me, got me to the hospital and I lived. The rest is a longer story, but I stayed on antidepressants, all SSRIs, for several years. The thoughts of suicide never went away. Sometimes they would not be in the forefront of my thinking, but they never stopped and nothing, including seeing a therapist, could stop them. I tried suicide two more times and miraculously survived both. I had many loving friends and relatives who helped me out and never gave up on me. However, the thoughts persisted. I could not shake them no matter what I did. One day I read about a study which found that SSRIs had exactly the opposite effect on teens in the UK. I asked my physician if I could stop taking my medication just to see if it might help. He told me that I was at risk and could not possibly stop taking my meds. However, being the stubborn sort of guy I am, tried it anyway. I was desparately in need of getting rid of suicidal thoughts and would try anything. The amazing conclusion to all of this is that after about two weeks, it was if someone had lifted a window shade and the light could finally get in. The thoughts stopped completely, as if by magic. I firmly believe that the SSRIs were having the exact opposite effect on me than they were supposed. I have never to this day, many years later, had any thoughts of suicide. I know that I am most likely a rare case. People on an SSRI should not stop taking their meds like I did. However I DO believe that more research should be done into the possible negative side effects they may have, regardless of the age of the person. I am an extremely lucky guy. I certainly know from this first hand experience how someone feels and thinks about suicide, and have great empathy for them. Thanks Hollis for your spot on advice.

    1. Every body is unique. Any thing you put in your body has a unique effect. Many medications have different effects on different individuals. So sorry for what you went through and am so happy you knew your body well enough to listen to it.

    2. I do not tolerate anti-depressants because of the side-effects. However, after a plethora (or so it seemed after years) of meds to treat the depression, Prozac seemed to have the best results with the least side-effects—for about 8-12 weeks! Then I get what was termed a “paradoxical effect”- it actually starts causing the depression to start over. It can absolutely happen!!
      Agreed that no one should stop taking their meds without a doctors advice and more research should be done.

  9. Thank you so much for writing and sharing this brilliantly and sensitive article on suicide. Having lost my younger, only and brilliant brother to in-patient suicide in 2004, my and everyone who knew him lives where rattled and forever changed. Like Robin Williams, none of us truly saw it coming. There are so many variables at play that the media refuses to acknowledge and discuss. Sadly, all will focus on Mr. William’s “internal demons,” or his addictions……no one will question the quality of the care he was receiving or the medications he was prescribed. So, thank you, for being courageous enough to open that can of worms and put it into writing.

    Yes, suicide is an act of hopelessness……so often just a glitch in time that can be averted if we just start talking openly about it.

    My heart breaks every day not only for my brother but for all those who perish in this manner. My heart breaks because of the stigma….the closed minds….the people who just don’t “get it”….the people who are foolish enough to believe that suicide “happens over there in that family, not in ours.” We are ALL vulnerable to this…..even those of us reading and posting on this blog. To think one is above losing all hope, or receiving inadequate or the wrong mental health care or being prescribed the wrong medications, is arrogant and dangerous. As this article says, it’s time we change the paradigm and start saving lives.

    Thank you again…… deepest gratitude,

    Denise Vitali Burne (Fein)
    Break the Silence

  10. Thank you for this blog. Like many people, I’m am saddened by the loss of Robin Williams. I felt he was at risk last month when he tried to check into Hazelden. I even dreamt about him and worried that suicide was coming. We need to view this as a disease and not a defeat.

  11. Hollis,

    Like many others, Switchboard is saddened by the loss of Robin Williams. Thank you for posting the number of lifeline. It is always important for anyone suffering from any emotional pain to know that there is somewhere to reach out to.

  12. My sister in law died by suicide 5 months ago. The analogy to cancer is spot on. We wouldn’t put the onus on the cancer sufferer but we do with suicide. I cringe when I read the “wish he knew help was available” comments or “seek help” or “talk to somebody”

    It’s so much more complex than that.

    None of us know his personal circumstances.

    This is a disease and we need to treat it as such and stop acting as if the sufferer has control over the thoughts and if it gets to the point where they die, as if they had control in the way most of us understand it.

    This is a really good article. Thank You.

  13. Beautifully written; however, I feel that “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” is a helpful statement. Especially if you can back it up with an example of how you may have struggled with suicidal throughts due to a divorce, and that you made to the other side of that struggle and are now remarried and have a full and rich life. Let the person know that had you died, you would have missed the joys that life in the future.

  14. Thank you for writing this article. As a suicide surviver myself and I have made several attempts over the years and i am also clinically depressed and with physical disabilities as a permanent reminder of one of my attempts I think so much more needs to be done for the education of awareness and understanding of mental health not only in the states but worldwide

  15. It’s good to see, among the sea of insensitive and horribly destructive nonsense that comes mostly from so called therapists and the Pop Psychology Crowd, that there are still a few sensible people left in the world.

  16. My heart goes out to Robin’s family. I lost quite a few people to suicide so I know what they must be feeling. If I weren’t so Irish – Catholic, I assure you there’s many times I nearly did it myself.

  17. Anni its so good that your religion is that strong to have stopped you. I wish I had a faith that could have stopped me

  18. Hi Hollis, thanks for the great post. It has made me rethink how I phrase suicide. I used to say my brother “committed suicide,” but I like the point you made regarding that phrase. What do you think of “I lost my brother to suicide”?

    Thanks always for continuing to do the important work you do!


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