Robin Williams’ Suicide Brings the Conversation Out into the Open



by Jane G. Tiilman, PhD, ABPP

Robin WilliamsRobin Williams’ death by suicide has drawn attention to the complicated circumstances and feelings that surround the issue of suicide.  When I started studying suicide and its effects on clinicians in 1998 I did not know that this would become a career trajectory.  Suicide back then was swept under the rug and rarely acknowledged as a professional hazard or something to be discussed much in public.  Why the silence? A legitimate fear about “copycat” phenomena (the Werther effect) may contribute to the silence surrounding suicide. Research has identified the ways a death by suicide effects family members and health care providers who are left behind as survivors.  Sveen and Walby (2008) found that those losing a patient or family member to suicide report higher levels of rejection, shame, stigma, need for concealing the cause of death, or blaming. 

The public nature of Robin Williams’ suicide brings the conversation out into the open, and this has the potential to both help and/or hurt those who are grieving.  Recognition about the pain of loss and the helplessness of those close to the person may help. Stigma and blaming can feel searing and lead to shame and intense anger.  Most of us did not have a personal relationship with Robin Williams, and yet many feel deeply sad or even angry about his death and the way he died, surrounded by people yet somehow subjectively so alone.  His death leaves us to wonder what he must have been suffering from and to imagine the sort of anguish he may have felt.  As clinicians and researchers, when a person commits suicide we are motivated to work to find more effective treatments or to understand the dynamics of suicide better with the hope of prevention or more effective intervention.  I believe that when a patient, a soldier, a celebrity, a parent, child, sibling, friend, or even a stranger commits suicide, the community of survivors sustains a moral injury that must be carefully tended to with care and respect.

For further reading:

Responding to Clinicians After Loss of a Patient to Suicide

How Society Discusses Suicide

Improvement and Recovery From Suicidal and Self-Destructive Phenomena in Treatment-Refractory Disorders

Suicide: From Chronic Risk to Imminent Danger

Suicide Rates on the Rise - Blog Series


Thank you Dr. Tillman. In reading your piece I felt like you prescribed the right medicine when you talked about clinicians going into action to try and do more to understand and prevent suicide but then you ate the pill yourself. Perhaps we can all partake of that medicine. Maybe we can all do something by destigmatising and normalizing the depression and other mental states that lead to the extreme act of suicide. I'm not saying we should be talking about suicide all the time. That would be depressing, but if we all make an effort to mainstream, understand, and accept the full spectrum of the human emotional condition perhaps those that might choose to dive off of that spectrum will be less likely to do so...

I read Jane Tillman's piece twice and was moved both times but for different reasons.  The first time I read it, I thought she was spot-on about the need to discuss suicide in a more open and honest way.  Doing it with the purpose of learning more to reduce the number of suicides taking place and the attempts of suicide.  But doing it also for the healing and comfort to those in the community most impacted by suicide.  I think both those reasons are important and imperative.  However, the second time I read Jane's article, I found myself struck by her closing words that after a suicide occurs, "the community of survivors sustains a moral injury that must be carefully tended to with care and respect".  Care and respect...for me, that is the hallmark of what I experienced as a patient at Austen Riggs from every staff member, indeed, from everyone.  Care and respect...what a perfect way to start this (or any other) discussion.