The Trouble With Saying 'Set Free' When Talking About Suicide

Robin Williams' death has renewed focus on the issue of suicide, in the media and in the medical community. Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Minne speaks with Melissa Block about how a high-profile suicide like Williams' may affect vulnerable populations struggling with depression.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In the days since the death by suicide of actor Robin Williams maybe you've seen the animated image that circulated widely through social media. It's from the Disney movie "Aladdin." We see Aladdin hugging the Genie who was voiced by Robin Williams in the film. The Genie Aladdin has freed from his lamp. And the accompanying tweet sent out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says - Genie, you're free. We heard a similar message yesterday on this program from our film critic Bob Mondello who ended his appreciation of Robin Williams this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Those struggles now ended. He is, as his Genie character in "Aladdin" would have it, finally free.

BLOCK: Well, that idea - that suicide is freeing - has prompted a lot of concern in the mental health community. We heard from a number of our listeners about that. Among them Elizabeth Minne, she's a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH MINNE: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And you wrote in to express your concern. You said, comments like this make my job difficult. Explain what you mean by that. How is it more difficult?

MINNE: I have found that comments like this can be interpreted by families and by individuals as a sign that they too can attain something positive by committing suicide.

BLOCK: Something positive meaning some sort of liberation from the pain that they're in?

MINNE: Right. Some sense of freedom or view it as a positive way to find - or an appropriate way to find some sense of relief.

BLOCK: And you've heard that from patients or families before, expressing that notion and tying it specifically to something they may have heard or seen in the media?

MINNE: Exactly, you know, I - mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder - it's complicated. And when people are in a dark mindset I have found that they may interpret things that are said out in the media and in the environment as signs or invitations to take some action that has irreversible effects.

BLOCK: Can you give us some idea of the kind of thing that your patients might express to you that would raise these concerns?

MINNE: People may express to me that if they commit suicide that they too can elicit a reaction from those loved ones, that they might be memorialized or viewed more positively. You know, we may not realize that we are - that in our reactions that we're sending those messages but they may be interpreted by someone - especially someone who is in a dark place - may be misinterpreted as, oh, well, they're saying that suicide is a way to find freedom. So that means that I now have the right to do that.

BLOCK: If you hear that sort of thought from one of your patients what sort of message do you try to counter with as you speak with them?

MINNE: My main message is that suicide is never an option for working through distress - that there is always a way for us to get to a better place. Other messages that are really important for me to convey is that that person is not alone. I work to remind that person about all of the thing that makes that person special and valued - the things that I value in that individual. I work to connect them with other responsible people that can support him or her, including licensed professionals, suicide prevention hotlines and then I also encourage those people to engage in healthy activities that give them a sense of joy. Things that give them happiness.

BLOCK: I wonder if there might be special concern here about young people who may be the most impressionable - most vulnerable to messages and also the most impulsive.

MINNE: Absolutely. I'm especially concerned about how these kinds of messages impact young people especially since they are so connected to social media. And we know how easily these types of images and messages get disseminated through social media. And, you know, when you combine emotional problems with impulsive tendencies you get very concerned about the safety of that individual.

BLOCK: Dr. Minne thanks so much for talking with us and for writing in with your thought.

MINNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Minne is a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas. She also told us that sometimes a high-profile suicide can have a constructive impact on others by encouraging other people to seek treatment.

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