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In Defense of the Academy’s Aladdin Tweet

The reactions to Robin Williams’ death have been all over the place, as one should expect under such circumstances; nobody knows how you’re “supposed” to react. We’ve only been living with the internet for roughly ten years, such as it exists now. Social media rules the day now. All of our news is shared at one time. There isn’t a lot of time reflection. Big moments like this tend to bring out the full spectrum of human emotional expression. Grief, anger, confusion – you name it, we’re feeling it and tweeting it.

The Academy tweeted a picture from Disney’s Aladdin that said “Genie, you’re free.” This prompted the Washington Post to wag its finger at the Academy for seeming to “encourage” suicide.

More than 270,000 people have shared the tweet, which means that, per the analytics site Topsy, as many as 69 million people have seen it.

The problem? It violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide.

“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.”

Moutier is referring to a well-documented phenomenon, better-known as “copycat suicide,” in which media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way. Adolescents are most at risk of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like AFSP have also become particularly attentive to the role the Internet plays in romanticizing notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.

There are several things wrong with this attack on the Academy but let’s start with the most basic: that is what happens at the end of Aladdin – the genie is FREE.

They’re saying that the Academy is saying suicide finally set Robin Williams free and that to encourage such an untruth is irresponsible. Sure, if you are counting on the Academy to dictate human behavior, holding them accountable for what people do by reading one of their tweets, hand over all power of personal choice and abandon any notion of people thinking for themselves.

Sorry but any kind of potential copycat suicides that are going to come out of this ain’t gonna be from the Academy’s tweet but rather the massive amounts of love and attention Williams in receiving in the wake of his death, as well he should. It is made more intense by social media, no doubt. Suicides rates are already high and there is a very good chance they will rise after Williams’ suicide.

The New York Times says:

When Marilyn Monroe killed herself in August 1962, the nation reacted. In the months afterward, there was extensive news coverage, widespread sorrow and a spate of suicides. According to one study, the suicide rate in the United States jumped by 12 percent compared with the same months in the previous year.

Mental illness is not a communicable disease, but there’s a strong body of evidence that suicide is still contagious. Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Analysis suggests that at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion.

They go on to say:

Experts also say articles should include information about how suicide can be avoided (for instance, noting that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255).

They also recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person. One example was the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who was beloved among young music fans, including in Seattle, where his career rose and where he was found dead. Local coverage of his suicide was closely tied to messages about treatment for mental health and suicide prevention, along with a very public discussion of the pain his death caused his family. Those factors may explain why his death bucked the pattern. In the months after Mr. Cobain’s death, calls to suicide prevention lines in the Seattle area surged and suicides actually went down.

“It’s different from any other cause of death,” said Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “When someone dies of cancer or heart disease or AIDS, you don’t have to worry about messaging it wrong.”

The Academy’s tweet implied that the genie’s suicide was an escape without following up the tweet with a suicide prevention hotline, like that is going to help anything. Look, this ship has sailed. The whole world is morning the loss of a great human being. Sorry to be the one to say it, but does anyone out there covering the Williams story not talk about his suicide as a way out of the pain? The alternative is to say it wasn’t a way out and that he should not have done it and that it was the wrong choice. But to do that people would have to disengage from the grief and love they feel for the actor. Understanding and compassion for what he was suffering with it is the unavoidable conclusion.

Me, I wish I could have pulled him back from the brink – or that someone could have. I wish he would have waited just one more day. Maybe it would have gotten better. I would urge anyone reading this who even thinks briefly about suicide to wait a day, to reach out to a suicide hotline prevention center or talk to someone. One of the hardest things about people who kill themselves is that no one knows they’re going to do it. They know. They’re resolved to do it but they keep it from everyone for fear of someone stopping them.

There are no easy answers. But I think the Washington Post is misplacing their blame in this instance.

In the meantime, this is what David Foster Wallace said about suicide from severe depression:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

I do understand the Washington Post is just trying to remind people not to romanticize the suicide but I want to remind them back that this was a Disney animated movie tweet out from the Motion Picture Academy, not a statement by the President of the United States.