Robin Williams’ Legacy, and Its Impact on Suicide Prevention

Robin Williams died two years ago today. In the immediate aftermath of his death, the world seemed to come together for a conversation about suicide.

At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we felt the effect immediately. As people turned to the Internet and social media for more information, the daily reach of our Facebook page climbed from several thousand people daily to 1.4 million people on the day following his death.

Media inquiries flooded our national office, and across the country our chapter leaders spoke to local reporters about the importance of suicide prevention. We urged the media to report on his death safely. The night news broke, we tweeted our Safe Reporting Guidelines, reaching nearly 100,000 people. The next morning we released a statement to the national press titled “Unsafe Reporting on Suicide Can Cost Lives.”

I personally shared on our website how important it was to remember that people die of suicide as the result of untreated or under-treated mental health conditions in the same way that people can die from pneumonia if not adequately treated. I urged people to remember that mental health conditions are treatable and that suicide is preventable.

There was, of course, some negative coverage; some called his death “selfish.” But many people and publications sought to elevate the conversation about mental health. The Washington Post published an informative piece about suicide contagion, which quoted our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Christine Moutier. Dr. Moutier and AFSP-funded researcher, Dr. Madelyn Gould spoke to The New York Times about the research on contagion. Food Network Star, Melissa d’Arabian, who is also a suicide loss survivor and friend of AFSP, wrote a beautiful piece for Everyday Health about moving from grief to prevention.

I strongly believe that the enlightening conversations that took place in the wake of Williams’ death lead to some of our recent advances in suicide prevention. After years of activism from AFSP and other mental health groups, the Associated Press Stylebook in March 2015 changed its rules for reporting on suicide, advising journalists not to go into details on the method used, and substituting the terms “died by suicide” or “took his/her own life” over “committed suicide,” so as not to categorize it as a criminal or sinful act.

This was a huge victory in our efforts to change how the media reports on suicide.

Williams’ tragic death also helped lead to an important, positive shift in the way people think and talk about mental health. AFSP, along with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, conducted a Harris Poll in late 2015 that revealed 90 percent of Americans view mental and physical health as equal. The poll also showed that 94 percent of Americans think suicide is at least sometimes preventable.

This positive shift in public perception has a direct impact on whether people who are struggling reach out for the help they need. Just one week after Williams died, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw a 50 percent increase in calls; in the year after his death, those calls remained higher than they had ever been before. I was subsequently interviewed along with the Lifeline’s Director, John Draper for a Newsweek article entitled: “Robin Williams Left ‘Unprecedented’ Mark on Suicide Hotlines.”

Through his comedy, Robin Williams left an unforgettable mark on the world. The tragic nature of his death has left an impact, too – inspiring our resolve to make suicide prevention a national priority. AFSP has set the bold goal of reducing the suicide rate 20 percent by 2025, but we need your help. Two years on, we must not let Robin Williams’ legacy fade. I hope you will join us at an Out of the Darkness Community Walk this fall in memory of Robin Williams, to remember a loved one, or to recognize your personal struggle with a mental health condition. Together we can #StopSuicide.

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