Suicide Prevention for All: Making the World a Safer Place to Be Human

Leah Harris
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Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?

— Russell Brand, comedian/actor

Like millions, I am sitting with the fact that one of the funniest people to grace the planet has died by his own hand. Robin Williams’ death has hit people of my generation, Generation X, especially hard. After all, his face flashed often across our childhood screens. Mork and Mindy episodes were a source of solace for me as a little girl, as I bounced around between foster homes and family members’ homes, while my single mother cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, fighting to survive. I could laugh and say “nanu, nanu – shazbot” and “KO” and do the silly hand sign and forget for just a little while about living a life I didn’t ask for.

“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” may become one of Robin Williams’ most famous quotes. I was always struck by how he moved so seamlessly between wacky comedy and the most intense dramas. He was so magnificently able to capture the human experience in all its extremes. He threw all that intensity right into our faces, undeniable, raw, frenetic. He showed us our own naked vulnerability and sparks of madness and gave us permission to laugh in the face of all that is wrong in this world.

In the wake of his death, many people are understandably jumping to identify causes. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Williams’ suicide was caused by depression, it was caused by bipolar disorder, it was caused by the drugs, prescription or otherwise. We just don’t know.

As a suicide attempt survivor myself, I can attest that it’s not that easy to find any single cause for the urge to die. It’s true that along with street drugs, SSRI antidepressants and other psych drugs can certainly increase suicide risk in some people. A decade ago, I was one of many who fought and won to get to the FDA to put a black box warning on SSRIs to warn the public of these very real risks. While a drug, legal or illegal, may give us the impetus we wouldn’t otherwise have had to act on suicidal thoughts, for some of us it’s more complex than that.

Our reasons for wanting to die are as varied as our reasons for wanting to live. That, I believe, is the great mystery of suicide.

But I invite us all not to fear the mystery; not to be struck hopeless by it. We can save each other’s lives; better yet, we can find and share reasons to keep on living. If we have 20 seconds, we can share information about a hotline or a warmline. But if we want to really see this horrific epidemic end, we all have to get more involved.

As someone who has looked into the void and longed for it more than once, I can attest that anyone who reaches out in those darkest of times is truly remarkable. It is, tragically, when I am most distressed and most in need of love and acceptance, that I have the hardest time reaching out. This is not an absolution of personal responsibility, because we all must accept some measure of that; rather a recognition that we shouldn’t put the full onus on a suicidal person to “reach out” and “ask for help.” We need to reach out and help. I have written about the problems with the master narrative of suicide prevention, and how punitive and dehumanizing much of the “help” out there currently is. This blog isn’t about that. I’m talking about help that heals.

My point is that we must change the way we relate to ourselves and one another. In revolutionary ways. We must wake up to the fact that we have been socialized since birth to hide the fullness of who we really are. Robin Williams got to act it all out and the world loved him for it. He expressed the madness, the wildness, that we have been conditioned to hide. We are generally chastised for laughing too hard or crying too loud or being too sensitive. We have been trained to put on a proper face and act like all is well. If for some reason we can’t naturally do that (and most of us can’t), we devise ways to cope with the awful unbearableness of it all. They may be fairly innocuous, like binge watching Orange is the New Black in bed all weekend long. Or we may seek to stop the pain in innumerable ways that we know will kill us in the end — from binge eating to chain smoking to staring down a bottle of whiskey or pills.

If we only realized just how many people walked around carrying heavy burdens that are invisible to the world, and were doing every fucking thing possible to keep from cracking under the weight, we would stop feeling so alone and isolated carrying our own. We could put down our burdens and rest, in the all-encompassing field of our human vulnerability and strength.

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle,” said theologian Ian MacLaren. I am struck by the imperative need for us all to take up the challenge to be kinder to ourselves and others. There is so much suffering in the world. How often do we ask ourselves, in the midst of responding to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails: how can I relieve suffering? At the very least, how do I not add to it?

No one person can fix this mess we have gotten ourselves into as a species, but we can each be a part of bringing more compassion and acceptance into the world. First, we have to learn to practice it with ourselves. We can be the antidote to the fear and sorrow that exists within us, in other people, and in the world “out there.” Kindness is dismissed as bullshit in a world that values power over others. But as mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us, kindness is a “force.” If unleashed in vast quantities, it could literally reverse the cycle of misery on this planet.

When will we stop walking around in these miraculous, vulnerable human bodies seeing ourselves as separate? What will it take for us to realize our interconnectedness; to act from a deep understanding that suicidal people are not to be feared and judged, but to be embraced and held in the light of understanding and true empathy? Empathy sees that we are all connected, and thus demands well-being for all.

I think of the people who report walking to the bridge and said to themselves, “if one person smiles at me or talks to me, I won’t jump.” Lately I try to go out of my way to smile at people, to talk to people, even if they look at me funny because they aren’t used to random strangers smiling at them or talking to them. Come to think of it, I think talking to strangers is definitely a symptom of some severe mental disorder in the DSM-V.

But seriously, folks. It strikes me that breaking down our collective walls of isolation, of chiseling away our carefully constructed masks, of taking care of ourselves and each other, of judging less and loving more, may be among the most important things we can do with our lives. We can simply value people, not for what they do or what they achieve in the world, but because they are alive on this planet with us, right now, sharing these troubled, turbulent and painfully beautiful times.

In the end, we are stunningly diverse, yet there are basic human needs that we all have in common. The ancient practice of lovingkindness exhorts us to wish for ourselves and all beings to be safe, to be healthy, to be free, to live with ease. How can we create a world where these universal human needs are met? I think this is one of the primary questions we should all be asking ourselves right now, and figuring out the answers together.

I don’t claim that smiling at the person who makes your coffee or talking to a stranger on the metro will save the planet. What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.

Nanu, nanu, Robin Williams. Rest in peace.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this Leah. I too am struggling with the loss of Robin Williams to suicide … I have many conflicting feelings…from disbelief to ‘not him too,’ to deep sadness at what I now assume must have been his years of deep pain and personal struggle while giving us so much …to anger at how his action has now hurt so many others…

    Your words are so comforting and hopeful…I agree that we must be there for each other and reach out when we can…even a small kindness can make a difference. Your article has helped me…thank you.

    Cindy

  2. My deepest condolences go to his family and friends who are the ones suffering the most.

    I am a believer in God, so I am sure he is in a better place now and I am also sure he will not be bothered by what I am about to say.

    To me this case raises two very important questions:

    1- Was he taking SSRIs or any other sort of psychotropic drug? News reports say that he was “battling depressing”, which is usually codeword for “he was being drugged with SSRIs”. I am looking forward to the toxicological results so this question can be answered. If he was indeed taking psychotropic drugs, we need to use this fact to advertise people NOT TO see psychiatrists.

    2- In the context of the Murphy bill advocacy, Williams’ case show psychiatry’s hypocrisy. His celebrity protected him of any talk of involuntary commitment or involuntary so called “treatment”. Had he been a poor person, I am sure his family would have been told that an involuntary commitment could have prevented his suicide. I don’t see Tim Murphy or DJ Jaffe spinning this case in the same way they usually manipulate mass shootings.

    • Interesting questions Cannotsay. I think that some of these types of questions will be avoided, or glossed over.

      Certainly I’ve not seen much discussion about the process of divorce, or as Robin Williams described it “having one’s genitals (or was it your heart?) ripped out through the wallet”. What is it about divorce that is seeing men suicide at a rate of 9 to 1?

      Anyway, I’ll listen as the media goes into their spin, and thank Robin Williams for the laughs that he gave me for free. I’ll say the “idiots prayer” for ya. R.I.P.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onjPvRCCDs0

  3. Leah

    You said: “What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.”

    Today one of the most important ways for us to make the kind of human connection you are describing is by joining together in the common struggle to sweep into the dust bin of history Biological Psychiatry and all the material conditions in this world that give rise to the kind of alienation that ultimately snares people into its trap of disease labeling and psychiatric drugs.

    It has been truly sickening to watch the media coverage on channels, such as CNN, where the likes of Dr. Drew Pinsky and other so-called expert doctors repeat over and over the lie that depression is a brain disease caused by chemical imbalances, and then they push for more medical treatment. The APA and the pharmaceutical corporations couldn’t have scripted this coverage any better.

    We need more organized efforts to counter these lies and not allow the forces of oppression to use the creative brilliance and compassion of a life like Robin Williams as a disgusting form of advertisement for more of what Biological Psychiatry has to offer.

    Richard

    • It IS a brain chemical imbalance, but the doctors caused it.

      They don’t call the drugs, drugs, they call them medicine.

      Doctors won’t take responsibility for the bad outcomes, they only take responsibility for the good outcomes. The con is perfect.

  4. One obvious question about the role of psychiatry in Robin Williams’ suicide is this: He was famous and well off and had access to the best psychiatry could offer, including lots of drugs. So how was it he wasn’t “cured?” This should tell people how useless psychiatry is, yet the media don’t talk about this at all.

    Obvious and ignored.

  5. I too believe in G-d. May Robbin William’s find peace and bliss in the world of eternal life. We’ve seen him so often in the movies and on TV. He’s made us laugh and feel better in the middle of countless days as many times as he appeared in the media. When I think , may his loved ones be comforted, I think he loved us all.
    Do I care if people think me mad ? Not. One day as I was sitting in a chair outside my Hud housing apartment really not knowing what to do deep inside myself out loud surprising myself I blurted out a sigh, ” G-d , What should I do ?” Within my head I heard a distinctly clear voice reply “Be a friend to my children.” I tried to figure out what that meant. About a year later I realized that between people whoever they are , no matter what is going on if there is not friendship between them there is not much going on at all. Leah , thank you for jogging my memory and your heartfelt post.

  6. I didn’t find where it is said that Robin Williams was taking antidepressants.
    I just did read he was fighting depression and also that in July he went to rehab. I know what drug-induced suicidal ideation is and I have been trying to raise awareness about it.
    Suicide prevention never raised this issue.
    But as far as Robin Williams is concerned all I know is that he committed suicide. I don’t know in what circumstances he did it.

    • We don’t have to know what drugs he was taking. We don’t have to think it was the drugs that caused his suicide. We don’t have to be anti-psychiatry.

      It is undisputed that he received tons of psychiatric “treatment,” probably what the shrinks would call state of the art, as he was a prosperous man and could afford it.

      So it defies common sense for his death to be used as an example of “treatment works.”

      The facts are there, and I hope we can focus on this. Robin Williams’ death was a demonstration that psychiatric treatment DOESN’T work. And we should be focusing on that.

      • Non-treatment doesn’t work either.

        A friend of mine who was a dentist, also a problem problem drinker, was often in a down mood. He was always very hard on himself and never thought he was disciplined enough or good enough to measure up to the standards in his head.

        He never received any kind of treatment (medicinal, psychological, or spiritual) because he considered it all to be a load of crap and his problems as individual weaknesses. In his early ’30s he took his own life after receiving a DWI. The shame of it pushed him over the edge.

        So, no interventions there and still dead.

        • Anon,

          I am very sorry for your loss.

          I don’t think any of us on this board are advocating no treatment for suicidal ideation. But it seems the drug them to the gills kind of treatment is not working and no, I am not commenting specifically about whether Mr. Williams too meds or not. But with the suicidal rate increasing along with the consumption of meds, something is rotten in Denmark.

          We need a system that stigmitizing people who are are suicidal and listens to them without judgment. Maybe it wouldn’t have saved your friend but I will bet alot of people would have been. But sadly, we live in a society that doesn’t want to take the time to listen to people and thinks it easier to drug them. A big fat sight.

          • What kind of suicide do you want?

            One choice you decide that you want to end your life and the other you take a drug that has as side effect violent behavior that can lead you to kill others or self.

            I rather kill myself because it was my choice.
            The number of soldiers that commit suicide increased because they are taking antidepressants SSRIs.

            As these drugs makes people have no sex drive and erases sexual fantasies – a condition that is known as PSSD – they are “treating” sexual offenders with antidepressants SSRIs.

            I consider prescription of SSRIs as crime against humanity.
            Wow! You’re being too dramatic and harsh.

            I did read a lot, seen a lot – people taking all the SSRIs available and going to have ECT – and experienced a lot.

            When someone takes her/his life due to these drugs it is not a suicide: it is a murder.

          • AA, thanks for your reply; it was very kind.

            I don’t tie the increase in suicide necessarily to the increasing consumption of drugs (both legal and illegal), even though I know they can have and have had extremely negative impacts on an individual basis. My reason being is that this country has been in downward slide for decades. All the promises, aka lies, of a Great Society being flushed down the toilet and a rapidly aging population that is increasingly marginalized.

            Agree on the quickness to drug people, although the people I know that go on ADs do so for only one reason and that is to remain functional so they can feed their families. Personally, I avoid ADs like the plague. Tried some for sleep issues prn. That was problematic enough. If I saw no choice but to take them or live in my car and beg on the streets, I would probably take living in my car or off myself. Of course, I support no one but me so I don’t have to take that into consideration.

            But, I have always wondered why does it have to come down to so few options?

            Leah, I very much appreciate your reply. That is where I was headed. Our culture is brutal almost without exception.

            The stories here pain me deeply, yet there are other stories of people who don’t visit and they are hurting too. I know there are answers here other than that we see now and that is what I am looking for. I can’t tell you how much it means to be given the knowledge of, and the directions to, places to get help outside of the current mainstream offerings, and that some others see the bigger monster facing us.

          • There is nothing that prevents suicide better than forced “treatment” where you first are subjected to what most surviviours describe as rape and torture while being concomitantly put on drugs which cause suicidal ideation in a proportion of people while having zero clinical efficacy against depression.

      • Ted,

        It is very important because drug-induce suicidal ideation is a very serious problem.
        Only those who experience it can say how REAL suicidal ideation is completely different from drug-induce suicidal ideation.

        In groups the work to prevent suicide the issue is never raised and when someone is feeling the “urge” to kill himself/herself even knowing that “it is withdrawal, it is withdrawal” something makes him or her keep going..

        But Robin’s wife finally could speak:

        Some people will be very sad that Robin’s wife gave this statement and no antidepressant is revealed:

        “Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”

        http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/aug/14/robin-williams-parkinsons-disease

        I’m appalled that mental health advocates are so eager to put a celebrity in the Hall of Antidepressant’s death.

        Quite unethical and… makes me sad and angry. Mainstream is making people behave like vultures.

  7. Suicide is a human right. The Romans and Asian cultures had a very sane view: the desire to live is predicated on quality of life. If your body is a burden, if you have lost the items (physical, mental or emotional) that give your life joy, or if you are under a regime that seeks to control your thoughts and behaviors or to abuse you, then suicide is not only a good choice, it is the noble and sane choice.

    Hatred and fear of suicide arose from religion–religions arose from fear of meaninglessness and our ego’s desire for permanence. Permanence plus meaning equal all the religious doctrines in the world if you care to examine them deeply, as I have. Religion without life after death is just ethics.

    I don’t know what meaning life has or what happens after death. Neither does anyone, and if a person insists on pushing subjective experiences in my face as “proof” of anything, I find him or her not worth debating.

    My advice to the State and to individuals who want to meddle in others’ lives: Leave people who want to commit suicide alone. Stop pushing the “beauty and meaning of life” on others. It is what we used to call an “ego trip” and is “all about you” as we say now. Good for Robin Williams. My friend knew him and Valerie well back in S.F. in the 70s and she says he always believed in individual autonomy including the right to die if it seemed the right choice.

    So can we respect that?