Can Robin Williams's death change how we talk about suicide?

Some of the insensitive reactions to comedian Robin Williams's death that have appeared online and in the media in recent days suggest many people still don't know how to talk about suicide and depression.

Mental health proponents say much more sensitivity needed, by media too

Robin Williams's death by suicide, and the coverage surrounding it, has prompted a discussion about the responsible way to report such cases. (CBC)

The death of comedian Robin Williams came as a shock to his many fans around the world and has re-opened a conversation on addiction and mental health.

Yet, the insensitive reactions that have flared up on some media outlets — and on the Twitter account of his daughter Zelda — show that many people still don't know how to talk about suicide and depression.

In a special report that aired hours after Williams died, Fox News host Shepard Smith, called the actor a "coward" for taking his own life.

"It's hard to imagine, isn't it?" says Smith, "Something inside you is so horrible or you're such a coward, or whatever the reason, that you decide you have to end it."

Smith later issued a public apology: "To the core of my being, I regret it. It just came out of my mouth. And I'm so sorry. And to anyone and their families who see that, I am sorry."

But he was far from being the only one to criticize Williams's act.

Some took to social media to harass his daughter.  Zelda William's Twitter page was bombarded with insensitive Photoshopped images of her dad.  

("I'm sorry. I should've risen above," she posted on Twitter later, referring to the messages that had upset her in the hours following the news of her dad's death. "Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye.")

Conservative U.S. talk show host and political commentator Rush Limbaugh also waded in, blaming Williams's death on his leftist worldview.

"Now, what is the left's worldview in general?" asked Limbaugh rhetorically. "It's one of pessimism and darkness, sadness. They're never happy, are they? They're always angry about something. No matter what they get, they're always angry."

Many of these negative comments were met with a flurry of public outrage on social media platforms.

But it is not just Williams's reputation that was at stake here.

As Dr. Peter Selby, chief of the addictions program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says, disparaging comments about people who have died of suicide can have a damaging impact on others who are at risk of doing the same.

U.S. radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has been criticized for his comments about the potential causes behind Robin Williams's suicide. (Twitter)

"Judgmental attitudes amplify and paralyze people from taking [positive] action," says Selby. "When someone is in despair, the last thing they are able to do is simply buck up."

Selby suggests that such wrongly held beliefs often come from a place of fear and powerlessness on the part of those making them, and that the only way to challenge them is through education.

Risk of copycats

Suicides often happen in clusters, observes Jennifer Chambers, the coordinator of the Empowerment Council, which is a voice for the clients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.   

"In cases of celebrity suicides," she says, "there's the danger of people romanticizing and glamorizing the death."

Because of the risk associated with copycats, most media outlets and many public institutions, including urban transit systems, have strict policies on how they share information on these deaths.

The Maryland-based National Institute of Mental Health has issued a best practices guide to the media on how to report on suicide, and it is based on more than 50 studies worldwide that have shown that certain types of news coverage can increase suicide risk.

The guide cautions against explicit descriptions of the method involved, use of graphic headlines or images, and coverage that sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

The NIMH also stresses the need for reporting that puts an emphasis on help-seeking.

Reporting on suicides

Following Williams' death, many major networks such as CNN and CBC broadcast a live media conference detailing the police's account of his suicide, including details about the methodology.

"We try to report suicide in the least dramatic and sensationalist way possible," says Greg Reaume, managing editor of news at CBC, who says the network follows the suggested guidelines for best practices.

Among them: avoid describing the act in detail or illustrating the method, and consider the risk of glorifying this behaviour or of influencing vulnerable people.

He admits, however, that despite CBC's clear policies, mistakes are sometimes made in the heat of the moment.

"People have shown tremendous desire to get this right," says Reaume. "Our every impulse and instinct is to get the facts out, but we also have a wider responsibility to do no harm."

Matthew Johnson, the director of education at the Canadian educational site MediaSmarts, says significant improvements have been made in the reporting on suicide and mental health issues in the last decade.

"Overall the responses are a lot more thoughtful," he says, with media outlets displaying more sensitivity when deciding on what to report and how to report news in a way that minimizes harm.

Williams himself was an advocate for breaking down the silence and stigma around addiction. He spoke publicly about his personal struggles with alcoholism and cocaine.

And his death has clearly affected many people, particularly those who share his passion for comedy as well as his struggles with depression.

Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute, an American non-profit school for journalism, says being sensitive to the possibility of triggering suicide in someone at risk shouldn't mean refusing to talk about the subject.

"We avoided this very serious public health topic in the past," says Tompkins. "No problem gets smaller by not talking about it."


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