The Wrong Thing to Say About Robin Williams’ Suicide

Can words kill? Maybe not literally, but what happened on NPR in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide is a fresh reminder that certain choices of words, well meaning but still very wrong, can perpetuate a myth about suicide that can be deadly for vulnerable listeners.

One NPR commentator referred to Williams’ role as the voice of the genie in the Disney movie “Aladdin.” When Aladdin frees the genie from his lamp, he pronounces him “free.” The NPR reporter ended his appreciation of Williams by saying, “[Williams] is, as his genie character in ‘Aladdin’ would have it, finally free.”

The next day, NPR aired a response from Elizabeth Minne, a licensed psychologist who counsels people with illnesses including depression and bipolar disorder. She said comments like the NPR commentator’s make her job more difficult because they can be interpreted as a sign that people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts can attain something positive – freedom – by taking their lives.

Some people, she said, might see such suicide “as a positive way to find – or an appropriate way to find – some sense of relief.”

“[W]hen people are in a dark mindset,” she said in the NPR follow-up, “I have found that they may interpret things that are said out in the media and in the environment as signs or invitations to take some action that has irreversible effects.”

Such comments might prompt some people suffering from depression to believe they will be memorialized or viewed more positively if they “free” themselves.

“My main message,” Minne said, “is that suicide is never an option for working through distress – that there is always a way for us to get to a better place.”

Minne is also concerned about how quickly and efficiently social media communicate these messages. “[W]hen you combine emotional problems with impulsive tendencies you get very concerned about the safety of that individual.”

So we hope the media take a more measured and informed approach when reporting on prominent people who have taken their lives. For the loved ones of people suffering such devastating illness, or who have experienced the suicide of a loved, see our newsletter, “The Shock of Suicide.”

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