Reacting to the Death of Robin Williams

Grieving and getting support in the wake of this tragedy

When a public figure dies, we may feel more grief than we think should be “normal.” The vast majority of us never met Robin Williams, but as Facebook feeds and the media fill with tributes, it's obvious how much this man felt a part of so many of our lives. And it is a shock to learn that someone whom we associate most with laughter died by suicide.

But that grief, and the feelings that may accompany it, are completely normal. It’s normal to mourn someone who had such an impact on our collective culture and brought us so much joy.

Williams’ death exposes us, however briefly, to the reality and risks of mental illness. As we mourn him, let’s take this moment to speak honestly about mental illness and offer support to anyone who is struggling with it.

Sometimes we are afraid to ask if someone is struggling for fear of making it worse, but it allways helps to name feelings. There is no shame in naming the need for help, asking for help, or receiving help to get better.

Know the risk factors for suicide
Several factors can put a person at risk for attempting suicide, including:

  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of depression or other mental disorders including: bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, schizophrenia, borderline or antisocial personality disorder, psychotic disorders and anxiety disorders
  • Alcohol and other substance use disorders
  • Family history of suicide or violence
  • Major physical illness
  • A history of trauma or abuse
  • Feeling hopeless or alone

Many people with these risk factors do not attempt suicide, but having them does increase the likelihood that someone faced with other triggers (including exposure to another person’s suicide) may attempt it.

Reach out to friends and family
Do you know someone who has either survived a suicide attempt or fits the risk factors above? Check in with them to see how they’re doing in the wake of Williams’ death. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an excellent guide to spotting the warning signs of suicide and what to do if you are concerned someone may be considering it.

They also offer this helpful list of support resources for those who have lost someone to suicide and find the media coverage difficult.

If you are considering suicide, know there are people who want to talk with you right now to get you the help you need. Ask until you get help. Call 1-800-273-TALK or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Pay attention to how you are feeling
Do you find it upsetting to listen to news coverage or reports? It’s ok to disengage when you feel upset or anxious. It’s a perfect example of self-care; it doesn’t mean you’re not interested or affected, it just means you know how to protect yourself.

Robin Williams no doubt helped many of us through difficult times by lightening our burden with laughter and insight. And his death, however we respond to it, is a sad, but important, opportunity to bring light to a very real, and very preventable, cause of death.