WHITNEY: Consider wider impacts of suicide discussion
It’s not easy to grow up, or to be an adult.
It’s especially difficult to watch our childhood heroes falter, but it’s a lesson we’re relearning as a culture this week as we reel from the news of Robin William’s untimely suicide.
Millions of people have responded to the tragedy in their own way, posting online their favorite quotes from Williams and recalling how his films and performances impacted their lives. Countless articles have already been written ascribing posthumous meaning to nearly every line from every role he has played. Call it a coping mechanism, call it cashing in on a tragedy, but either way you can’t stumble across a webpage, newspaper or television set without hearing more.
But one tweet seemed to catch fire more than any other, and it’s probably the most problematic homage to Williams that anyone could’ve crafted.
Monday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the people best known for producing the Oscars, tweeted an image of the Genie — a character voiced by Williams — and Aladdin embracing warmly before a starry night sky, moments after Aladdin wished for the Genie to be free forever from his lamp. The attached message was a quote from the movie: “You’re free, Genie”
People reacted. More than 307,000 people shared that specific tweet, which could mean as many as 78 million saw it, by some estimates. Still others copied the idea and created their own little social media shareable with the same image and text, and some shared a YouTube clip of that moment from the movie.
Then other people reacted, including some at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it. Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the foundation, referring to the potential for copycat suicides to soar if the image and quote impacted vulnerable people.
So there are obvious broad social implications that come with talking about suicide as a form of release — we can take the experts’ words for it.
But I can’t help wondering if there isn’t a more specific problem with using a children’s cartoon to illustrate the concept of freedom in suicide, especially in an age when we’re seeing high rates of suicide among younger and younger children, whether the reasons are based in bullying or instances of depression. AFSP’s data indicates a slight upward trend of suicide among the 15-to-24-year-old age group since 2009. (Rates for those under 14 have remained flat since 2000, AFSP reports.)
For my generation, Aladdin was a big deal movie, a childhood staple for sure. I don’t know if it has the same pull on today’s children, but I’d like to think it remains a classic. That alone should give anyone pause when they consider connecting the Genie’s image with a message inadvertently commending William’s decision to end his own life.
But before we stop the conversation all together, let’s discuss how we can talk about suicide in a way that’s impactful and helpful.
We can continue to talk about the potential for depression to take hold over the lives of those affected if they aren’t treated by doctors and supported by their loved ones.
We can share stories of overcoming depression, especially those of us who project as “normal and happy” as Williams did, to borrow a description from some of the less-sensitive reports on the matter.
And we can know where to turn for help, and help those in need get there. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)