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 generation of slacktivists.

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 slacktivists.”

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, and their affinity for being slacktivists is more damaging than it is helpful. The conversation 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. It is the very nature of slacktivists, who are more concerned with being seen as affected than they are with actually doing something.

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 one of the slacktivists 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.

(This post was published as a column in the Orangeville Citizen on Thursday, August 21, 2014.)


  1. Samantha Clarke

    You have a really good point, and focusing on the mental illness/suicide issue is a really good way to hit home. The internet has given us a way to share articles and sign petitions and then feel like that's good enough–we've done our part. If your way of doing your part is to spread awareness, then by all means do, but you're right–you've got to be consistent; you've got to keep the conversation going even when it's not in the spotlight; you've got to talk about it in ways that will actually help.

    And people should consider doing something physical once in a while. Go to a rally or a charity event or attend a political debate. Get off your butt and move for the causes you care about!

    1. Tabitha Wells

      ^Totally in agreement. Nothing is ever changed just by a group of people saying something once or twice and never going back to it. And unfortunately, being an ‘invisible illness’ mental health is that much harder to grasp by most people already. Treating it as a disposable conversation, only to bring it back when it strikes the media again, does so much damage and doesn’t help anyone.

  2. JerseySjov

    I consider myself incredibly lucky that my life has thus far not been personally touched by a suicide. I've been through a depression (my therapist at the time described it as “situational” rather than “chronic”..I've done the therapy, the pills, what have you) and I have friends who are depressed/self-harmers but so far we've all somehow, stumblingly, made it at least to the surface.
    I try to do my part by not joking about the serious stuff as well as being an open ear.. If I hear something that seems out of my league I always recommend seeking a professional by sharing my experience.

    1. Tabitha Wells

      Thanks for sharing, and I am very happy to hear that yourself and your friends have made it through. It can be difficult, and it’s honestly a total miracle that I’m still here today.

      Sending people to a professional when something is out of your league is a very good thing to do. I think too many people try to be a therapist because they’ve been through something that they think quantifies their advice and it doesn’t always pan out.

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