Student Well-Being

Robin Williams’ Death: What We Shouldn’t Say When We Discuss Suicide

By Evie Blad — August 12, 2014 2 min read
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As anyone with access to any social media network quickly realized yesterday, shock following the death of comedian Robin Williams cut across multiple generations. So while school administrators might remember the beloved star from “Mork and Mindy,” students, too, are grieving the man they know as the Genie from repeated childhood viewings of “Aladdin.”

Officials today confirmed that the actor, long plagued by depression and addiction, died of suicide. That means this cross-generational conversation must be handled carefully, especially among teenagers.

Research shows that poorly handled coverage of suicide can be harmful to those who are already vulnerable. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has recommendations for reporters writing about suicide. Unfortunately, much of the conversation about Williams death has been well-meaning but quickly composed tweets and Facebook shares, not carefully edited stories written by conscientious reporters. For example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted this image and caption, which could be harmful.

“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told the Washington Post. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.”

Given the share rate of that tweet, as many as 69 million people had seen it when the Post published its story midday Tuesday, the paper reported.

Counteracting Harmful Messages

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that young people are especially susceptible to influence from others in this public health issue. Last night, as news of Williams’ death spread, Education Week saw a spike in traffic to this commentary piece about schools’ role in preventing suicide. This is clearly a concern to many folks who spend their time caring about kids. As educators, how can you counteract harmful messages your students may be receiving about suicide and steer them toward healthier conversations? The National Association of School Psychologists has a helpful page of resources for educators. From that page:

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth between 10 and 19 years of age. However, suicide is preventable. Youth who are contemplating suicide frequently give warning signs of their distress. Parents, teachers, and friends are in a key position to pick up on these signs and get help. Most important is to never take these warning signs lightly or promise to keep them secret. When all adults and students in the school community are committed to making suicide prevention a priority—and are empowered to take the correct actions—we can help youth before they engage in behavior with irreversible consequences.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also recommends that suicide should be discussed as a public health issue and not sensationalized with terms like “skyrocketing” or “epidemic.”

Here are warning signs of suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

“The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk,” the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says. “Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.”

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.