(This post was published as a column in the Orangeville Citizen on Thursday, August 21, 2014. As the columns do not make it in the online edition of our paper, some friends requested that I post it here so they could share the piece.)
Last week the world was rocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of actor Robin Williams’ apparent suicide. A number of celebrities, political officials and other important figures have died in my short lifetime, but I have never seen the world respond as emotionally and full of grief as it did when this news broke.
The news sparked an onslaught of messages about mental health, mental illness and suicide awareness, which is a good thing right? Unfortunately, not as good as it should be.
The problem is that in this generation of social media, where every thought we have, every meal we eat and every thing we do seems to be the desire of the world to know, we have created a platform of slacktivism.
Slacktivism is defined on Wikipedia as “a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist.”
Talking about the myths surrounding mental illness and spreading awareness is important, but only talking about it surrounding a celebrity’s death and going back to one’s regular life isn’t helping. Many of the people I saw sharing the ‘suicide awareness’ and ‘mental illness is a disease’ posts were the very same people I’ve seen calling others ‘cowards’ and ‘selfish’ for suicide, and telling people to ‘just get over’ their depression.
The brief conversation hovering just around a celebrity’s death isn’t good enough. It needs to continue, and it needs to be more in depth. Holding that conversation also means you need to make serious consideration in what you’re sharing.
At least 40 percent of my Facebook friends list commented on his suicide, and mental health, followed with a picture of Genie and Aladdin hugging with the phrase “Genie, you’re free.” I understand the sentiment, I really do. And I understand it’s part of that emotional farewell to a great man. But it’s a damaging sentiment. It projects the idea to people who are suffering with depression that what Robin Williams did leads to freedom, and it doesn’t. Death isn’t freedom; death is an end. Being freed means having something to go towards.
While death may provide a way out of the pain, the fact remains that there are many ways out that do not include death. And while we don’t want to be going the opposite direction and joining the comments of “suicide is selfish and cowardly” we also do not want to paint it in a ‘bright light’. Because right now, as we speak, there are thousands, possibly millions of people teetering on the edge of going over.
If we paint it with a stroke that lacks compassion, it has been proven to deter more people from getting help out of fear of being called cowardly, selfish or told to just get over it. If we over-glamourize it and paint it as a ‘freeing’ choice, again whether or not it’s intentional, it suggests to those people on the edge that death is the best option for ending their pain.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA, there is a phenomenon that has been tracked for the last 300 years called ‘Suicide Contagion’. Based on years of research, studies and statistics, when a suicide is well-covered in the media, the number of suicides around that time increase drastically. This happens even more-so around the suicide of a celebrity.
The CDC has narrowed it down to several ways in which a suicide is covered that leads to the suicide contagion:
- Presenting simplistic explanations for suicide
- Engaging in repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide in the news
- Providing sensational coverage of suicide
- Reporting “how-to” descriptions of suicide
- Presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
- Glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide
And unfortunately, comments like “Genie you’re free” or the temporary “Mental Illness is a serious issue” influx of photos and comments before people return to never speaking about it again contributes to the contagion.
There’s nothing wrong with getting the conversation going. It’s important, and conversation is the first step in getting any movement rolling. But if you don’t intend to actually support it, please, don’t be a slacktivist and share just to make yourself feel good that you’ve ‘done your part’, or convince yourself that a couple of shares have made a difference.
There are so many ways to get involved in raising awareness that will not take a large amount of time or money. So if you really believe in that message, if you really believe that change needs to be made, then step away from your Facebook page and Twitter account, and find out what else there is that you can do.
Locally, places like Dufferin Child and Family Services or our local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association can tell you what you can do to help and how to spread the word. But please, don’t treat it lightly. Serious issues deserve more than a momentary glance and hit of the ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button.