Learning From The Loss Of Robin Williams

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Ron Henry/Flickr/Creative Commons

By Leona Kashersky, Psy.D.

When I learned of the tragic death of Robin Williams two weeks ago, tears came to my eyes.

I valued his mind and contribution to the arts and humanity, as did so many in the world who share in the loss of this beloved comedian, who took his own life on August 11, 2014.

Not only did I feel an emptiness at the thought of never seeing another new Williams’ masterpiece, but knowing that so many looked up to him, I feared that his end could inspire those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts to follow his example.

Recent studies have shown that when a mentor, parent, loved one, or admired celebrity commits suicide, communities can become vulnerable to more tragic loss of the same kind.

As such, I’d like to speak to Williams’ specific situation, and address some general suicide risk factors in hopes that education could help us to grieve and prevent further harm.

O’ Captain, My Captain: Robin Williams’ Struggle

It is well documented that Williams had a long battle with substance use, and mental health professionals have hypothesized that he also suffered from bipolar disorder.

In early July, he checked himself into rehab, though news reports stated that he did not technically relapse. This readmission into rehab was right after his new sitcom The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season. Whether or not Williams actually relapsed or was preventing a relapse, it is important to recognize that he was proactive in addressing his need for help.

Further, Williams had just started a new medication to treat his newly diagnosed Parkinson’s disease; his medication did come with warnings related to depression and suicidal ideation.

Risk Factors, Warning Signs & Intervention

Though we don’t know the complete details of Williams’ personal life, there were risk factors present in Williams’ history and current life situation that indicate that he was vulnerable to suicide.

Most suicides occur within three months following the treatment of a major depression, as the patient’s energy increases and before negative and destructive thoughts decrease. This leaves individuals in the initial phases of treatment at risk to follow through on suicidal thoughts. Moreover, even individuals who have a drug, alcohol, or eating disorder in full remission can be 10 percent more likely to complete suicide and are at higher risk. Professional monitoring is needed in the form of regularly scheduled counseling to teach healthy coping skills for managing stress.

In addition, patients starting some new medications that are not related to mental health treatment can be at risk of developing depressed and self-destructive thoughts. When patients are warned of the side effects, they don’t always remember the warning was given when the thoughts start to intrude. Often, patients are caught off guard and can be at greater risk of harmful behaviors.

Most people who contemplate suicide do not want to die, but rather feel disconnected from others and are likely experiencing difficulty thinking creatively about how to solve life’s challenges.

Here are some more general risk factors and warning signs that can help you identify and help those considering suicide:

Risk Factors

  • Mood changes or depression
  • Peer and/or family conflict
  • Perfectionism/overachievement
  • Poor coping skills
  • School or work failure
  • Drug or alcohol use

Warning Signs

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Recent break up
  • Running away
  • Talking about suicide (even if it sounds like a joke)
  • Dramatic changes (for the worse) in personality and/or appearance

9 Initial Interventions for First Responders to Suicide: 

  • Be patient and nonjudgmental
  • Treat the problem seriously
  • Do not try to talk the person out of it
  • Do not be afraid to ask direct questions about suicide
  • Communicate your concern and support
  • Offer yourself as a caring listener until professional help can be arranged
  • Try to evaluate the seriousness of the risk presented in order to make the appropriate referrals to mental health professionals and emergency services (i.e. 911)
  • Do not swear to secrecy. Contact someone who can help if the individual will not get help personally
  • Do not leave the person alone if you feel the threat of self-harm is immediate

Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons

At the “Mrs. Doubtfire” House, 2640 Steiner Street, San Francisco, CA, USA. Ted Eytan / Flickr / Creative Commons


Community’s Role in Suicide Prevention

As community members interested in preventing suicide, we must work together to identify, reach out, show compassion, and educate people who are or who know someone that may be at risk.

As a larger community, we can support individuals in developing a spiritual practice that fosters community inclusion and engages individuals in altruistic projects that inspire them to help others or the environment. Programs that build a sense of mastery and inspire a sense of community inclusion rather than alienation are known to be effective in preventing suicide.

In addition, community can support centers that provide organized outings for cultural enrichment, specialized training, education, sexual counseling, crisis intervention, and health care.

We can find a Healing Pathway!

Healing Pathways offers its condolences to everyone who loved Robin Williams dearly. We hope that we can all grieve together as a community and teach each other how to move through pain and sadness with compassion for each other and ourselves.

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Coming Home: Grief Healing through Art

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Transformation by Fire: Each year the Burning Man Festival culminates with the burning of a temple which participants have filled with symbols of love, life and loss that they are ready to let the fire transform. (Photo (c) Tristan Savatier – -used by permission)

by Nicolina Cahouette, M.A., MFTI

Human relationships are profoundly changing experiences. They are euphoric in their infancy, and can take us to the darkest lows when they fall apart. Remember the Daryll Hall song “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you” popularized by Paul Young?   When an important relationship ends or changes, we experience a loss that can be emotionally akin to the death of a love one.   Therapists often hear that people feel lost or incomplete when a relationship transforms or ends.  This is a normal stage of the grief process and the duration of this stage can vary from person to person.

As Barbara Ganim discusses in her work, artistic expression is another experience that profoundly alters the human landscape.  Art connects us experientially through our senses, which is similar to what occurs in important relationships. Art has the power to emotionally transport us through the past. All of our senses are engaged through artistic expression. When we lose time in a project, performance, or exhibit, we are actively connected with our emotional system, experiencing a sort of time travel that takes us through the many sensory levels of processing and integrating the experience in different ways. This process allows us to see beyond the primary filter of pain we may use to describe an event and understand that many emotional components are part of the equation, thereby releasing the ideology that the event or a relationship ending was “only painful”.

The value of losing one’s self in time creatively is eloquently outlined in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on Flow Psychology. Csikszentmihalyi describes how creative process or Flow increases human happiness. The following exercise is an artistic journey that calls back that piece of you that went with the other person when the relationship ended.

The Coming Home Exercise

This activity is inspired by Gestalt therapy, an experiential approach “fathered” by Fritz Perls.  You’re going to make a collage of the relationship experience.  This powerful piece will culminate with a representation of you taking back your energy. The materials are entirely up to you: The only requirement is that the elements of the project should be powerful reminders of the relationship’s emotional impact on you. The elements could be a picture of your favorite place, food, or unique mannerisms that you shared only with that person. The  piece should include a representation of you calling that lost piece of yourself back to you. Let that image or description resonate with you on an emotional level. For example, a strong calling back image could be hands reaching out and pulling towards you. How you decide to visually represent the act is up to your creative discretion.

Once the project is finished, display it prominently where you will see it during the grieving process. As time goes on, you may notice it less and less. When you feel you are ready, you may choose to do a letting go exercise where you burn the piece, bury it, or let it flow down a river. You may also choose to put it away or if positive feelings are experienced by looking at it, leave it where it is. The power of this exercise opens the mind’s experience to the fact that more than one emotion can exist in the same space when recalling an experience. This expands our ability to assimilate information from the experiences and primary relationships in our lives.

Healing Pathways offers our condolences to those affected by the Isla Vista tragedy this week in Santa Barbara.

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