It is the two-year anniversary of the tragic death of Robin Williams, one of my heroes both as performer and a human being. I grieved for him as if he had been family - I wrote about celebrity death and how we process it at the time HERE.
I have been around a lot of suicide lately, and I see that it is often mistreated and judged in very....uncompassionate...ways. But I have also seen that suicide is not a monolith - people perform this act of desperation and violence for many different reasons, which I think bear examination. I feel they fall into three major categories.
The first has to do with the suicides of young people. Young men and young women take their lives for different reasons and in different ways. But overall, whether they use a gun or pills, the resulting tragedy is the same - a life gone too soon. The overall pattern is that they feel hopeless and that their life is over. Kids get rejected by family or peers - kids fail at something at which they were expected to succeed - or they are already in a violent or traumatic environment that feels inescapable. There is a subcategory also, where kids are experimenting with something dangerous and something goes horribly wrong.
Kids (and I mean anyone 24 and under, since the brain does not fully mature until that age) do not have the life experience, the wisdom or the perspective of decades for them to know that life is a long journey, full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and that single incident is not the end, and that they have to learn how to face tough times.
Gay youth in particular have staggering suicide rates - they may be trapped in a home where they are rejected and/or a town where they are harassed, attacked and worse, they may feel there is no hope. But they just have to stick it out until they can get out and move somewhere where they are welcomed and valued. One resource for young LGBTQ is a wonderful organization called It Gets Better, founded in 2010, to communicate to them that all is not lost and that there are plenty of communities and organizations where they will be given the love and respect they deserve. Their videos in particular are truly inspiring and the lessons they teach about having hope are marvelous for all young folk.
When news of Robin's suicide emerged, the assumption was that he had been deeply depressed and couldn't face the future anymore. A hailstorm of criticism descended about how depression isn't a big deal, he was cowardly, etc etc. There is a huge difference between being depressed and having depression, but it is still seen as a character flaw. Depression is a diagnosable disease that is brain-based and has nothing to do with one's heart or spirit.
It is heartbreaking to watch people who were so down and broken in life be labeled and humiliated in death. It is a terrifying and lonely place, that feeling of No Hope - I know, I've been there. Why can't we see people's suffering and have compassion? I also spent time in college getting my psych degree working on a crisis hotline on the overnight shift. I once spoke to two suicidal callers in one night 0 a night I will never forget, I assure you.
But later it came out that Robin's health was in serious decline from a brain disease (Lewy Body Dementia) that had already affected his memory, paranoia and reasoning. Robin knew he would decline rapidly and become a shadow of his former self. So he took the only measure of control he felt he could and checked out before that happened. Cowardly? Are you kidding me? I think there is nothing more courageous, and I do not know if I would have the strength to do this..... He decided to go out on his own terms, not the disease's, before it ravaged his life.
And finally, there are the folks who have a debilitating illness and take their lives at the end of the journey. My husband's aunt did this in 2015, after more than 25 years of suffering with MS. She made the only decision that was left to her and took herself out of the game. I cannot fault her for that in any way.
I believe the defining factors are life experience and hope. Young people do not know yet that their lives are not over and that adulthood will be different. And they may not recognize the danger in trying risky behaviors because, quite literally, that part of the brain that involves that type of judgement has grown yet. On the other hand, an adult with an illness that will only go one way is an entirely different scenario, and they can make a conscious and informed choice about how their lives end. These two things cannot be treated in the same manner.
Suicide is one of the topics that gets whispered about. It is judged and derided and our loved ones are attacked. Survivors are left questioning what they missed and grieving the suddenness of the violence. But like all things around death and grief, they must be talked about, hashed out, dug into and brought into the open. In the dark is where monsters lie and the monster of suicide, especially in this country where Assisted Suicide is illegal, is more dangerous in the dark.
I miss Robin Williams terribly - it is still hard for me to watch his films, which give me so much joy. Now there is a tinge of sadness that I see in his eyes, and I am especially sad that he was attacked at his death and that he had to die alone in secret. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US - let's learn about it, talk about it more kindly and work at prevention. Life does get better. And compassion is always the kinder and wiser choice.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
It Gets Better
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255