Skip to main content

Suicide doesn't set you free

By Bill Schmitz, Jr.
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Schmitz: Media should never present suicide as escape for problems. It's often preventable
  • He says Oscars tweeted 'Genie, you're free' about Robin Williams. Wrong. His pain now on others
  • Schmitz: It's unknown if celebrity suicide causes copycats; adults must address issue responsibly
  • Schmitz: Williams tragic death a way to teach people suicide's warning signs, open dialogue

Editor's note: Bill Schmitz is a clinical psychologist and president of the American Association of Suicidology. Follow him on twitter @DrBillSchmitz. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Suicide should NEVER be presented by media as a means to resolve or escape one's problems (contrary to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' twitter post, the genie is not free, the genie's pain has now been dispersed to a very large audience).

While I do not know, and no one knows, if Robin Williams is "free," he is dead, and his loss has devastated us all.

Suicide needs to be talked about as a fatal outcome that is, in the majority of cases, preventable and caused by severe illness and/or extreme psychological anguish.

Bill Schmitz, Jr.
Bill Schmitz, Jr.

When I learned about Williams' suicide on Monday, it knocked the wind out of me. Sure, I am the president of the American Association of Suicidology, so I am alert to media coverage of suicide.

I talk about suicide every day, but, like most of you, my connection to Williams is personal. I'm from Boulder, Colorado and after I moved away, I would turn on reruns of "Mork & Mindy" any time I felt homesick or alone. Robin Williams' portrayal of a wacky alien just trying to make it in this world provided comfort, laughter, and wonderful memories.

His death, by any means, is a deeply sad event. That he died from suicide (a cause of death I try to prevent nearly every day) just makes his death that much more painful to me.

Opinion: Why Robin Williams lost to depression

One of the questions I am usually asked after such a high-profile public suicide is: How does the news of a suicide affect others who are at risk? When it comes to high profile suicides, the research about contagion (or "copycat effect") is not clear.

We can't say for sure if media coverage increases the risk of more people attempting suicide. However, our best research suggests that "how" we discuss suicide in the media is more important than "if" it is discussed.

People tend to be afraid to talk about suicide, which is disheartening considering that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It kills more people than motor vehicle accidents and more than twice as many as homicide.

Opinion: Robin Williams and depression: We all wear a mask

But in our high-tech, social media driven culture, we need to recognize that avoidance or denial of suicide simply is no longer possible. A friend of mine told me that her 8-year-old daughter came home from school yesterday talking about suicide. The specific details of Robin Williams' suicide method were discussed by children on the playground nearly 2,000 miles away from Williams' home, less than 24 hours after his death.

The reality is, this 8-year-old knew more "facts" about the death than I did (clearly, not all professional journalists have read or follow the media guidelines regarding the reporting related to suicide and suicidality). At this time mental health professionals do not know how making this information widely available, even to school children, affects their long-term mental health.

In his own words: Williams on depression
How to help someone with depression
Gay diving champion beats depression

What we do know is that responsible adults need to ensure that the messages and stories related to Robin Williams suicide, just like every other suicide, are seen as opportunities to educate people that help is available (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK; Crisis Text Line: www.crisistextline.org), that mental health treatments are effective, and that suicidal thoughts, by their very nature, tend to be time-limited -- though they may regularly recur.

Our best experts believe that providing information about how to get help is one of the most useful things we can do after a highly-publicized death by suicide.

When mental illness affects your family

Williams' death is also an opportunity to educate people that there are warning signs for suicide, which, if recognized, can help get people the urgent care they require to avert it. These include talking or writing about death, dying or suicide, when these actions are out of the ordinary, and withdrawal from friends, family and society. There are a number of others, so please take a moment to click here and review the warning signs of suicide.

Suicide is a tragedy that can have an enormous impact on those who are left behind. While Robin Williams touched many of our lives (including mine) throughout his illustrious career, more than 39,000 people commit suicide each year -- meaning as many as 107 other individuals may have died this way on the day Williams took his life.

Hopefully what will come out of this tragic loss of life is a more open dialogue about this very real health issue, which has claimed so many lives.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT