The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a tweet with this picture of Disney's Aladdin hugging the genie, voiced in the movie by Robin Williams, with the message "Genie, you're free."
But is Robin Williams really free? No, he’s dead. He’s free from living and learning. He’s free from his battle with depression and his addiction to alcohol. Meanwhile, the public is trapped in a strange predicament when it comes to suicide. How to honor the man and his creative genius while not glorifying suicide?
Unfortunately, tweets like these that are meant to uplift do nothing but create conflicting messages about how to handle mental illness. Maybe you can find the image reassuring and comforting but for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses, this same image could trigger a vulnerable person to commit suicide by associating “freedom” with the act. Blogger Holly Thomas shares her concerns in the Independent:
"I find that message troubling. Its immediate simplicity belies extraordinary scope for misinterpretation and misrepresentation. ... Suicide is not freedom. It's a cry for help that always comes too late...to intimate, however subtly or unintentionally that taking your own life is a liberating action, is irresponsible and dangerous. While someone who is not suicidal might look at the picture of the genie and find comfort, someone whose mind is weighed heavy by depression may see something dangerously different."
As a psychotherapist, I work with clients regularly dealing with depression, addictions, and sometimes suicide. The challenge is instilling a personal sense of hope for those dealing with suicidal tendencies and helping clients find the root cause for some of their symptoms as well as challenging and changing their cognitive distortions (i.e. negative thought patterns).
While depression and suicidality is a mental condition, I would remind folks it is not unequivocally a “disease,” like cancer, that leaves choice out of the equation. Suicide is a choice that’s made of free will. Clients who feel suicidal and want to end their pain oftentimes have negative core beliefs about themselves that need changing.
In Robin Williams’ case, it’s hard to speculate what the issues were but it’s clear he thought he had no other choice but to kill himself. Williams was a functional and productive member of society who chose to commit suicide because of an irrational belief system that convinced him there was no other way to persevere through his emotional anguish.
But as a therapist, I’m here to encourage those who are struggling with addictions, depression, or suicidal urges that there is a way out and that’s to live it out. Or better yet, maybe I should quote Robin Williams who played a character quoting Walt Whitman:
“What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer. That you are here — that life exists.”