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  • Dr. Shane Owens

Hope in the wake of a public suicide

I was thinking yesterday on my way between offices (sometime around 4:00 PM Eastern Time) about some recent research by Dr. Matthew Nock and his colleagues that says that we do not do very well at predicting and preventing suicide. I was thinking about how this could possibly be. After all, writers of novels, movies, and television shows seem to have figured it out long ago. Sure, there is such a thing as foreshadowing, but there has to be some basic understanding of what precedes a suicide that goes into writing those things. This understanding seems to elude us so much of the time. The last of the fictional suicides that I considered during my 30-minute drive was (spoiler alert) the one completed by Robert Sean Leonard near the end of Dead Poet’s Society.

I am generally doubtful with regard to cosmic linkages of any sort.

I am sure that I was not thinking about the coincidence when I was informed—almost simultaneously at around 7:30 in the evening—by my wife and by my colleague and friend Dr. Leah Klungness about Robin Williams’ completed suicide by self-inflicted asphyxiation. I don’t recall thinking about the fluke until this morning at about 2:30. At that point, I was clearly very sad and starting to believe strange things about the ways in which time and the Universe work, so I went to bed.

There has already been—and will continue to be—a lot of talk about Robin Williams’ death. I am glad that much of it has been in tribute to his life, talent, and philanthropy, and that his family’s wish for privacy has been mostly honored. I am hopeful that one of the good things that can come from this public suicide is that we can turn this into an ongoing—constant—conversation about suicide risk and prevention. I hope that the shock—the fact that no one seemed to see this coming—can be a way for us to increase awareness of the silent suffering that can lead to losses like this one.

I spend much of my life thinking about suicide. Yesterday was not that much different for me, except that there were, in one instant, a whole lot more people trying furiously to answer the same questions that I and my colleagues wrestle with on a daily basis. It is important that more people start asking those questions and working on the answers.

Most immediately and importantly: if you know someone about whom you are concerned, ask them directly about suicidal thoughts. Ask them more than once. Take him or her seriously and get help. Do not wait.

Here are some places that you can look for some answers with regard to suicide, its assessment, its prevention, and how to deal with its aftermath. As always, you or anyone that you know who is thinking about suicide can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

One is too many.

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