Robin William’s death on August 11, 2014 has stimulated social dialogue as well as personal reflection for many who were entertained by him over the years. As a psychologist who counsels people experiencing depression, and those grieving (sometime due to suicide of a loved one), and teaches classes about mental health and depression, I think a lot about depression and suicide. I was not immune to emotional reaction. When I heard Robin Williams had died my initial reaction was of disbelief. I thought someone had to be making a (very bad) joke. Then, at least for a few moments, I felt shock that gave way to a sense of heaviness and sadness. I grieve along with others at the loss of this talented compassionate human being.
Today, one day after the news of his death, I have been engaged in multiple conversations about Robin Williams and suicide – on Facebook , in conversations with family members and strangers I had just met, in workshops I was leading, with psychotherapy clients in person, and by text. I have seen the public reaction in the media.
Here are a few reflections I would like to add:
Scope of the Problem
Though Robin Williams story is very powerful, there are hundreds of suicides every day. The latest estimates of suicides JUST by US veterans are 22 a day. World wide over 1 million people a year die by suicide. Why is this not an issue that is discussed on a continuing basis?
Though MOST suicides are preventable . Research shows that most people who enter a suicidal crisis make some kind of communication of suicidal intent, if others are able to recognize the communication and provide assistance – the suicide can be prevented. For more information about learning the signs and ways to intervene go to http://www.qprinstitute.com.
Compassion for survivors and victims
Not all suicides are preventable, and even if a survivor did not recognize a suicidal sign, there is no reason for self blame. The incident has happened and cannot be undone. Grieving the loss may be especially difficult because of guilt that “I should have done something more,” and because of social stigma about suicide. For survivors, help may come from organizations like SOS – Survivors of Suicide http://www.survivorsofsuicide.com. Grief counseling may be helpful, sometimes immediately after the death and sometimes years later.
Compassion for those struggling to understand
While I make every effort not to judge a person who attempts or completes suicide, I recognize that it is hard to understand. I have compassion for those who condemn a person who completes suicide. The condemners are trying to make sense of the act. Suicide IS a decision to take one’s own life. Some condemners are caught up in the fact of suicide being a decision and fail to recognize that the pain and suffering that leads to the decision. Condemning may be a coping mechanism to distance from the pain and confusion of suicide.
Compassion for all means concern for those who struggle with and ultimately succumb to suicide. It also means consideration for those who condemn suicide.
Suicide is a complex issue. It is almost always related to mental illness. Suicide is an attempt to relieve great personal suffering. No one can understand Robin Williams internal experience, or the experience of anyone else in a suicidal crisis.
If there is anything to be learned from this tragedy, let it be that we never know the pain and suffering of another person – we can not tell by looking at them, by hearing them speak, or by knowing their history. We can learn to be more compassionate and sensitive to others, hear subtle cues of their pain and connect in ways that encourage them. We cannot prevent all suicides, but we can be more compassionate to all, and we can prevent many potential suicides.
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.