Hamilton police officer apologizes for tweet after Robin Williams's death

A Hamilton police officer who tweeted about mental illness after Robin Williams's apparent suicide apologized and deleted the original message after negative on-line reaction. McMaster University mood disorders expert said the exchange demonstrates the "complex range of responses" people have to suicide.

Sergeant tweeted that Williams could have 'set a better example' for those with mental health challenges

Canada's crime rate has been dropping steadily since the early 1990s (CBC)

A Hamilton police sergeant known for his prolific Twitter use apologized for a tweet he published last night after Robin Williams’s apparent suicide. He said he wished Williams “could have chosen to set a better example for those suffering with mental health challenges.”

The sergeant, Jay Turner, signed the tweet “Jay,” but the avatar image for the account is a Hamilton Police Service badge and the account’s username is “@HPSActionTeam4.”

The tweet sparked an online reaction and a conversation about stigma and judgment connected to mental illness and depression. Experts say some studies show there is increase in suicides after high profile cases such as this.

Many people who saw Turner's message responded that they were offended that he appeared to blame Robin Williams for his mental illness. It's a response that doesn't reflect understanding of suicide and depression, some said. 

One responder, a reporter at a Toronto talk radio station, found the message disturbing in part because of its corporate weight.

Turner began apologizing within 30 minutes for what he said was a misinterpretation of his sentiment.

An hour later, he said he had deleted the original message. He reiterated his apology.

And he added an apology to his personal account.

The apologies generated some support for Turner and his apparent intention. One responder acknowledged the sergeant’s attempt to draw some meaning from a tragedy.

The exchange demonstrates the “complex range of responses” people have to suicide, said Margaret McKinnon, an expert in psychology, psychiatry and mood disorders at McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

“What I read in that message is suicide is an incredibly challenging issue,” she said.

Depression is an illness like any other illness, she said. Society needs to continue to break down the stigma about the illness without judgment or blame for someone dealing with mental illness.

But, she said, incidents like these make it even more important to talk with each other and discuss these issues. Misunderstandings can grow without that discussion.

“I think people are acting from the heart,” she said. “What I think this reflects is that we all hope we can help.”

Police face mental health issues in the community and within their own ranks, she said, and they struggle to respond like everyone else.

Debbie McGreal-Dinning, spokesperson for the Hamilton Police Service said "Sgt. Turner's comment was an expression of his personal view. He has apologized for the unintentional impact that his comment may have had."

She said the department is committed to dialogue about mental illness that is "respectful and compassionate."

"We believe that the stigma of mental illness can only be reduced by engaging in courageous conversation and encouraging those suffering from mental illness to reach out and access the services available to them," McGreal-Dinning said.

"Suicide is an emotional issue, one that [the Hamilton Police Service] has been deeply affected by personally and professionally."

McKinnon said people should talk with friends and family members who struggle with depression and mental illness.

St. Joseph’s Crisis Outreach and Support Team hotline, or COAST, can be reached 24 hours a day at 905.972.8338.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.