In death, Robin Williams will never know the tributes many, many people paid him. He was an incredibly popular man, loved by millions and adored by fans the world over. His humour touched our lives for decades.
He will also never know the ugliness his death exposed. The heartless cruelty and ignorance directed at his daughter, Zelda Williams. How it forced her to remove herself from Twitter and caused the social media giant to rethink their standards of conduct.
She later eloquently wrote, “… I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay…” Anyone who has lost a loved one to a mental health related death has repeated those very words over and over again in their hearts. She summed up the words of loved ones left behind beautifully.
I’ve said them many times myself. I lost my daughter, Rehtaeh Parsons, to suicide. She was 17 years old when she died — alone, angry, hurt, confused, and sad. I know she never wanted to die. She told us that many times and when her death came it was a complete surprise. We thought she was getting better.
I’ve said the words Zelda wrote knowing it wasn’t the love in my daughters heart she died from nor could the love I had for her in mine keep her here. It has nothing to do with love or our hearts. It was the hurt in her head, the injury in her mind, that caused her death.
Robin Williams didn’t die from suicide, he died from depression. Rehtaeh didn’t decide one night to kill herself — she died a slow, painful death from a disease of the soul that kills close to 4,000 Canadians a year. Every two hours someone feels so hopelessly lost they see no other option but to die. We are failing those people.
We can go a long way to preventing suicide if we stop seeing it as something someone does, a crime they commit, and start seeing it as something that happens to them. How we view death and the terms we use to describe death are part of the problem — people ‘die from’ cancer yet we say they ‘commit’ suicide.
In 2009, suicide was the second leading cause of death for males aged 15 to 44 and females aged 15 to 24. The majority of those deaths are preventable but only if we have the right tools, the right support in place, and only if we have the right conversation.
Suicide, as a topic, is usually avoided when it comes to youth. The fear of contagion or suicide ideation has all but shut the door to what could be — and should be — an opportunity to reach out, educate, and offer help to those who need it.
When the first anniversary of our daughter’s death approached, some of her friends hoped to do something at her school in remembrance. A memorial or a meeting so they could talk and offer comfort to each other.
A school administrator’s response sums up rather nicely how we fail when it comes to suicide. He said Rehtaeh wasn’t the only teen to kill herself last year, and asked what makes her so special? Did her friends know people jump off the bridge in Halifax all the time? He reiterated that suicide is not talked about and that there was a reason for that. A reason he didn’t bother to share. End of story. If her friends wanted to do something to remember Rehtaeh, they’d have to do it off school property and without the voices of adults.
Imagine that kind of callous dismissiveness being used to say Rehtaeh wasn’t the only teenager to die from cancer? She wasn’t the only one to die from MS so what makes her so special? That people die in car crashes all the time.
Put yourself in the place of a teenager hearing that kind of message regarding suicide. We don’t talk about it at school so if you’re depressed or having suicidal thoughts you’ll have to go somewhere else to find someone to talk to. We’re treating suicide like it’s a shameful secret and that approach to mental health is why so many suffer alone and don’t feel safe asking for help. We’ve created a toxic environment that shames people into silence.
It’s a missed opportunity to walk away from kids who want to talk about suicide, depression, grief, and how to support each other. But to be fair the school is likely taking their cue from the media who take their cue from psychologists who are, to be blunt, out of touch with how teenagers communicate and absorb information.
The fear of suicide contagion and ideation shouldn’t be used to prevent us from having one of the most important conversations we can have with youth. The media uses guidelines written in the 1990s for reporting on suicide — what to say, how to word headlines, how to report a death on the news. How to make it seem like it’s not something to copy and not something glorious to do for attention.
But young people don’t read newspapers or watch broadcast news so as far as that goes the effort may be noble but it’s meaningless. Teenagers get their headlines from each other. They get their news from school, on their cellphones, Facebook or Twitter, and numerous other nontraditional sources.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think media publishing guidelines have an impact on youth suicide ideation. Teenagers are talking about suicide like they never have before. Rehtaeh’s Facebook page and the pages of numerous other lives tragically lost is proof of that. It’s hard to believe how many young people posted messages during the weeks and months following her death. They still do. Hundreds of kids reaching out to offer prayers, thoughts, sadness, and shared grief.
Teenagers are talking about suicide and we need to make sure theirs are not the only voices in the conversation. Sadly, the very voices needed the most are the ones missing.
The voices of teachers, parents, psychologists, doctors, police officers, mental health workers, and community leaders.
We need to talk about suicide.
If you or someone you know is at risk please contact your nearest Crisis Centre.