Robin Williams’ Suicide Brings the Conversation Out into the Open
Robin 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.
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