By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP
Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.
Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.
When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…
2) 60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.
3) I wonder what else was going on with him.
4) I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.
5) Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!
Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.
Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.
1) Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.
In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.
(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).
2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”
Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.
At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.
If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.
Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.
3) “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.
Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”
The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.
4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”
Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.
And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.
As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.
Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.
But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”
I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.
5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”
I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.
It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?
And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).
On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.
I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload. And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.
By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.
But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.
And, oh yeah…
If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.