Beyond Tears: Translating Our Grief Into Suicide Prevention
Published Aug 15, 2014By Melissa d’Arabian, Special to Everyday Health
Losing Robin Williams is keeping me awake these days. On Monday, I sobbed deeply for a man and family I have never met. I cried alongside all of you, and scrolled slowly along the heartbreaking posts in my social media feeds: those who knew him well gave us a sneak peek into his incredible generosity, fans shared how Dead Poet’s Society made them want to become a teacher, or how Mork gave hope and smiles when watched from a hospital room years ago. I stayed up late, because going to bed that first night someone dies feels like an acknowledgement that the person is gone and that life will have to go on.
Happiness Is an Inside JobI watched countless clips of his various roles, and reveled in his artistic genius. I re-lived the moment he won an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting, looking deep into his eyes, trying to find hints as to why his happiness that day (small h) didn’t translate into Happiness (big H), even though I know the answer. Happiness (capital H) is the term I use to describe the inner joy and hopefulness that keeps us plodding along on life’s bumpy road; it gives us enough joy to house life’s sorrows and still want to take another step. And, Happiness is an inside job.
In 1989, my own mom died by suicide at the peak of her career, after years of hardship. Many of us were left wondering: After so many difficult years, why would she lose the will to live after she had arrived? It took me years to figure out what my mom learned too late: Wherever you go, you take you with you. (That’s me as a child with my mom, Cassie Wesselius, pictured right.)
more money. Yet if there is one gift I have taken from my mom’s death it is the ability to be Happy without always being happy. I am as Happy today as I was five years ago before I got my “big break” on TV. I love my job and am incredibly grateful for it, but I see my Happiness as an internal set point – it doesn’t reflect outer circumstances like a thermometer but rather regulates like a thermostat. So when mom finally became a successful physician, her version of an Oscar, I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t horribly let down to discover that external stuff, even widely celebrated success, fixes nothing important.
The Next Thing (fill in the blank: money, boyfriend, new job, bigger house) doesn’t fill our deepest hole, and that is a double-edged sword. The good news is I don’t need a bigger house to be Happy, but the bad news is that a bigger house can’t make me Happy.
How Can We Prevent Suicide?Our collective posts and tweets seem to boil down to a key question: How could a man who defined culture not feel like he mattered enough to keep going? I don’t presume to know what was going on in Robin Williams’ mind and heart but I do know this: even being a cultural icon is outside stuff. My heart weeps for whatever was going on inside. We are joined together in this sadness – baffled, stunned, and moved into action. We post heartfelt pleas to be kind, to open our eyes to suffering brewing below calm surfaces, and we tweet suicide hotline numbers in an effort to throw a lifeline to someone in need. I take comfort in our joint mobilization. As flawed as we are, we still care enough to shout-out our support and share raw emotions in united celebration of this man we treasured, and in our common hope to eradicate the thief that took him too soon.
What keeps me awake now is: How do we translate our reaction, our wounds, into a reduction in suicide? Awareness is part of the answer. However, it is not all of it. Suicide is preventable, but it is a battle that will need to be fought on multiple fronts, and it will not be easy. The path to suicide can be a messy one, filled with ugliness that begs off all but the most dedicated interlopers. Or it can be a complete mystery, with subtle warning signs that are only identified in the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Removing the stigma of suicide after it has happened is a first step. Twenty-five years ago, well-meaning family members gave me the option to keep the cause of my mother’s death forever a secret, and for years the word “suicide” was spoken to me only in whispers, both literally and figuratively. That we can talk about Robin Williams’ suicide openly, compassionately, and without shame is progress.
But talking about a suicide after it has happened is just a start. Extending our hearts out to mourn a great man who gave us so much is not enough. While Robin Williams was a cultural phenomenon, what is most tragic about losing him is that he was one of us – a father, a husband, a fellow human being who counts. We all count.
Raising the Profile of Mental HealthI dream of a world where we remove the stigma from the entire life cycle of the suicide path, for everyone. More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental illness or disorder. So let’s start there. Let’s talk as openly about mental illness, depression, and substance abuse as we do about Robin’s suicide. Let’s extend the support we give celebrities to everyone, and make it easier for Ned in accounting to get the help he needs instead of gossiping about his crazy behavior at the office holiday party.
Let’s make sobriety less foreign and mysterious and instead more of an option. Parents, do we really need to have vats of margaritas at our children’s soccer games this school year? The recovery community – we need to find a way to balance anonymity with passing the message that there is life after alcohol and drugs, and that a sober life is not only worth living but is full of laughs. College students, bartenders, hairdressers, and everyone else: Take 15 minutes to click on the links below to learn the warning signs for someone in crisis, and what to do to help.
More than half of people who attempt suicide reach out to someone beforehand. Remind yourself that someone may realize they need help, but not have the energy to get it. Be that person’s energy and make it happen. If you are suffering yourself, please reach out to a friend, a professional, or a hotline (1-800-273-TALK) because you matter. You matter as much as Robin Williams does.
Suicide is preventable. So let’s do that: Let’s prevent suicide. I think we are ready.
Resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- Suicide Hotline. If you or someone you know are currently in crisis call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), go to a nearby Emergency Department or Walk-In Clinic, or contact your doctor or therapist.
- Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Suicide. Most of the time, people who take their own lives show one or more of the following warning signs before they take action.
- Find Help for Suicide. Did you know that 50 to 75 percent of all people who attempt suicide tell someone about their intention? Take all threats of suicide seriously.
- Find Support and Treatment for Mental Health Issues. More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental illness or disorder. If you’re suffering, please reach out for help. Remember, you matter.
- Supporting the Cause. There are many ways to support suicide awareness, prevention, and education efforts, including donating to or getting involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (That’s me in the picture above, at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s 2013 Lifesavers Dinner where the organization honored me with the Survivor of Suicide Loss Award.)