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The Death of Robin Williams: Suicidal Impulse, the Media, and Your Obligation As a Compassionate Citizen of the Planet

 

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As a practicing clinical psychologist for twenty years, I have treated the desperately hopeless, tortured souls of the suicidal on many occasions; each with his or her unique story and lonely grief. Soothing the suicidal person is not an easy part of my job. Most psychologists recognize that we will probably lose a patient to suicide sometime in our career. And we fear it. We also help those patients fight their destructive impulses with everything we’ve got for excellent reasons.

The news of Robin William’s death by asphyxiation struck me with the deep compassion that appears common to his adoring audience. It’s profoundly sad to think of this gentle, hypomanic funny man desperate enough to call it quits. He was open about his struggles with depression and addiction, yet we wonder how he could not be led to hope with all the help available that money can buy. I have many ideas about the loneliness of fame and how his years of alcoholism and cocaine abuse may have depleted the very dopamine receptors that would have allowed him to fully capture the joys of life. But instead of exploring Robin’s reasons, I’d like to discuss my fears of how his death may influence others and ask for your help.

In 1996, I wrote my dissertation about suicide. I completed a comprehensive review of the literature, held trainings, and currently teach about suicide in my university courses. One of the scarier facts I’ve learned and witnessed over the years is how suicide can be a contagious behavior. When a community loses somebody to suicide, mental health experts hold their breath and brace for battle. And now in the digital age, and with the constant bombardment of media from our many treasured devices, few escape full immersion into salacious stories such as Robin William’s suicide.

The most prominent message in the media appears to be WHY?

There are many theories about what leads to suicidal ideation; depression, hopelessness, lack of social support, spiritual crisis, etc. And each of these is critical to assess for each individual. However in my view, at its core, suicidal impulse is a problem-solving deficit. It is a concrete, black-and-white, easy answer to escape emotional pain. It is where people often go when they are too overwhelmed to reason. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long in the face of reason for suicide to extinguish as a real option.

It is a rare individual who has not fantasized about suicide. It is a tempting solution whether it be the hope of a quick escape from emotional torment or a hostile act of “I told you I was hurting!”. Until, that is, one realizes how it hurts the survivors and leaves them without opportunity for resolution. In most circumstances, suicide is a hostile act that leaves emotional wreckage in its wake. Loved ones are left with the blunt force of despair, anger, and torturous guilt if something they did contributed to their loved one’s anguish, or, alternatively, if they could have done something to save him. Or, in the worst circumstances, if joining him in self-murder is a reasonable option.

Profoundly injuring those who love and know you seems too hostile to contemplate. Other achievable, less destructive solutions to overcoming emotional pain may emerge.

Solutions are what I work furiously to coax forth in session when I excavate suicidal impulse from my client’s emotional landscape. Of highest priority is facilitating honest expression of emotional pain, then validation, exploration, and gradual reassurance and guidance toward hope; the hope that emotional agony is temporary and relief will come soon; that a sunset, a hug, a memory, or a delicious meal may be all that is needed to provide nurturing relief. My goal in session is to provide compassionate psychoeducation that there are other solutions. And being fortunate thus far to have not lost a client to suicide (although there have admittedly been some close calls), I have witnessed countless recoveries from despair. I have been blessed with the profound rejoice and gratefulness of my clients who thank me for helping them come out better with rejuvenating hope. It is these moments that inspire me to remain in the battle. But the battle has become even more complicated in the digital age.

Just as I am grateful for the love that permeates this planet and protects its citizens, I am also furiously mind-boggled by those who feed hopelessness and encourage reckless destruction. In face-to-face encounters most people cannot carry through with hostile encouragement of another’s suicidal ideation. Behind a computer screen, however, there seem to be many anonymous trolls who lurk to attack and hurt others, getting off on the shared “connection” they may form with a suicidal audience despite its potential destructive consequence.

We have all become aware of dastardly cyberbullying campaigns that have led some to despair, but are you aware that there are actually websites and chat groups that provide instruction and encouragement for suicide? It seems impossible to imagine that people would contribute to that, doesn’t it? Well they do, and it’s our job to step up and do extra to protect the vulnerable from these hostile individuals. Perhaps these enablers insist they are there to provide honest validation and sought-out instruction and that suicide is a real answer for some that are in pain. However, I would argue that most visitors to a site like this are not the terminally ill seeking a peaceful rest, but instead the confused and frightened among us who need a helping hand toward recovery rather than a push in the direction of shattering destruction

If you suspect somebody you know is emotionally struggling, please don’t ignore it or keep her secret. Ask frankly if she is thinking of suicide and commit to finding the help she needs. Love her fully AND get her to a trained mental health expert who can help you both navigate these treacherous emotional waters. And if you are a parent, educate your children and filter their exposure to Internet predators who want so badly to feel important that they will fuel even a descent into emotional hell. Most importantly, have compassion for the pain of the suicidal and those who have lost loved ones.

Rest in peace Robin Williams. I may not agree with your choice, but I offer my love to your soul and all of those who have cared for you and are hurting from your loss.

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3 comments… add one
  • Kathy Slattengren August 20, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Thank you for sharing your insights from your work with suicidal clients.

    Parents play an important role in teaching their children the highest priority you mentioned for suicidal clients – facilitating honest expression of emotional pain. Parents may unintentionally teach their kids that expressing emotions like sadness or anger is not OK. However, when a child’s feelings are validated, the child feels understood and recovers more quickly than if the parent responds “Stop crying!”

    Developing the ability to honestly express emotions is a life-long gift for children.

    • Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D August 20, 2014, 3:38 pm

      I couldn’t agree with you more Kathy! Validation is the first step to teaching self-soothing. Our kids need our understanding and our compassion, consistently and forever. Cheers to hugging it out!

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