Like so many people who have watched Robin Williams in television and movies over the years, I was shocked and saddened by the news of his death by apparent suicide. As the tributes continue to pour in, his phenomenal talent is being celebrated alongside his fundamental kindness and decency as a human being. It does not come as a surprise to learn that he was every bit as wonderful in real life as he seemed in his films.
Paying tribute to such a beloved public figure as Williams seems only natural. Trying to do so in a way that acknowledges the painful reality of his struggles with addiction and depression makes those tributes more difficult and complicated. Unfortunately, this can result in sending a well-intentioned but perilous message.
One such message was communicated by a Tweet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As an Academy Award-winning actor, Williams doubtless knew many members of the Academy, and it is wholly understandable for them to want to pay homage to his greatness and his humanity. But their manner of doing so was very troubling.
Featuring a still from the movie Aladdin, in which Williams gave voice to the Genie in one of of his most lauded roles, the message is simply “Genie, you’re free.” On its surface, the message is simple and poignant, yet hopeful. But beneath that surface is a very wrong idea.
Though I am not a child psychiatrist, I have been involved in the care of many, many depressed children and adolescents over the course of my career. Some express a feeling of hopelessness and that their intractable sadness will never abate. It is vitally important for these patients to keep holding on. The very last thing I would want communicated to them is the idea that death is freedom, and suicide is liberation.
Further, the contagion effect of suicide and the resultant attention to it is a well-documented phenomenon. Coverage of suicide can lead to others committing or attempting suicide themselves, particularly adolescents and young adults. Minimizing this effect is an important part of framing the coverage of any such death, particularly for one so famous and admired as Williams. One thing to be strenuously avoided is anything that smacks of glorifying the act itself.
By tying Williams’ death to the tearful but uplifting finale of a cherished movie, the Academy’s message does just that. It conflates the Genie’s fate with the man who gave him voice. But the Genie’s story goes on after the conclusion of the film, while Williams’ life has come to a tragic and untimely end. It is the wrong message to send.
Williams’ wonderful qualities were well known. Less so was his private pain, though his own comedic material often included reference to his struggles with addiction. It is important to acknowledge both when discussing his death, as difficult as doing so may be. While I understand why the Academy chose the message and image it did to memorialize him, they are not what I would want those struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide themselves to see and hear.