Celebrity suicide can focus spotlight on help for those struggling

Suicide was widely discussed and publicized on social media and by news organizations around the world after actor Robin Williams’ death a week ago.

Laura Rambo spoke with The News Tribune recently about resources available in Pierce County to people battling depression. Rambo, a licensed mental health counselor who has worked with clients for more than 30 years, is a clinical manager at the Lakewood-based Greater Lakes Mental Heathcare.

She talked about how social media messages can be both helpful and harmful after a celebrity suicide, and about the effect such a death can have within a community.

Question: What resources does Pierce County have for people struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts?

Answer: There is a crisis line (800-576-7764) that people can call anytime of day or night if they’re concerned about their own safety or the safety of a loved one.

The person on the other end will triage what they need. They gather some demographics so they know who they’re talking to, and sometimes the crisis is resolved with that person. If the caller needs a counselor to meet them for face-to-face support, they contact the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team.

Sometimes I emphasized, when I was working with teenagers: “Are your friends solid friends who are going to look out for you when you’re not able to look out for yourself? A good friend isn’t going to stand by, they’re going to call an adult.”

Q: Journalists try to follow certain guidelines when reporting information about suicide. Are there things the public should consider before distributing messages about suicide via social media?

A: There are two messages I’ve seen on Facebook (since Williams’ death). One concerns me, and one is very heartening.

There are the people who go: “I hope he’s found peace at last. He’s finally free of his misery.” That is so not the message for anyone who is struggling to hear — that this is a way to find peace. That message really concerns me.

I don’t know how Robin Williams feels now, but I know suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. When people are suicidal, their ability to problem solve shrinks.

Anything that reinforces that death is the way to get immediate relief is scary to those who love this person, and for those of us who are there to help people.

Other posts I’ve been seeing on Facebook are very heartening. A lot of people are posting help line numbers and saying: “This tragedy doesn’t have to happen again. Reach out for help.”

It’s a really great opportunity to help people to get the word out that there is help out there, when you don’t feel that you can help yourself anymore.

Q: What effect does a celebrity suicide have within a community?

A: There’s certainly a contagion effect. The population affected is the population that celebrity appeals to. Robin Williams did a lot of movies that appeal to a broad range of people. He’s very well known. Those who admire a celebrity (and are struggling with suicidal thoughts), this encourages them, just like anything a celebrity does (who) people want to emulate.

A suicide that gets this much attention can really reinforce that this is a valid choice to make when you feel there are no choices left for you. The ability to figure things out yourself is diminished. That’s when they really need to reach out.

Q: Do you think support and treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts have improved in recent years?

A: I like to think so. Certainly every year there’s a lot more expertise around different ways to help people. The only benefit of a celebrity who makes this choice is that it gives us an opportunity for people to hear, “There is another way.”

We get clients who say, “I don’t want to get that bad,” when they hear about a celebrity suicide or read about some of the struggles a celebrity may have been having.

Q: Is there anything else people struggling with depression should know?

A: Many people seek counseling services when they feel suicidal and therapy really helps. The vast majority of people who seek help for depression and suicidal ideation do get better. The vast majority do work through this, and return to or find a life worth living.