Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

robin williams

Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and somewhat confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss that really isn’t going to improve. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.