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Column: Words matter as we mourn Williams’ death

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It pulled at our heartstrings in a way only Disney movies can.

Shortly after news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide broke Monday evening, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out its tribute to the fallen comedian and actor on Twitter.

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“Genie, you’re free,” read the tweet with an image from Disney’s “Aladdin” showing the title character hugging the Williams-voiced Genie after releasing him from his lamp.

With its poignant symbolism, the tweet instantly went viral, getting well over 300,000 retweets by Wednesday morning, presumably by grieving fans who felt some comfort knowing Williams’ lifelong battle with addiction and mental illness was finally over.

But his death by suicide doesn’t mean he’s now “free” — he’s dead — and messages like this, no matter how good the intentions, are a disservice to the many others still fighting their own battles.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention CEO Robert Gebbia released an open letter about the issue Tuesday, reminding the media the evidence is clear: The way we talk about suicide can trigger those who are contemplating it.

Words have a power we often don’t realize, and in this case, the wrong words can send the wrong message. No matter what those hundreds of thousands of Twitter users wanted to say by retweeting the image and caption, they reinforced the harmful and mistaken idea that suicide is the only way a suicidal person can be “free.”

Gebbia’s letter puts the focus on the media, reminding us that our words, phrasing and content all matter when we report on sensitive issues like this.

Still, the work of accurately and carefully talking about mental illness, addiction and suicide is shared by all of us, not just TV stations or reporters with columns, and we all need to do a better job.

Even with the work to promote a better understanding of mental illness and treatment options, there are signs today that the social stigma surrounding it is still a big problem.

Researchers studied changing cultural attitudes from 1996 to 2006, reporting in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2010 that despite some improvement in our knowledge about the causes of such illnesses, the stigma against those who are ill actually got worse.

For example, 49 percent of survey respondents in 1996 said they thought of alcoholism as a sign of a person’s “bad character,” while 64 percent said so in 2006. Respondents who said they wouldn’t want to be neighbors with someone with schizophrenia went up, too, from 34 percent to 45 percent.

Those who suffer from schizophrenia or any other mental illness are well aware of these harsh cultural attitudes, which seem increasingly at odds with reality considering 18.6 percent of all U.S. adults had a mental illness in 2012, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That’s right — about 1 in 5 Americans is battling something like this, and that doesn’t include those with substance-use disorders. Everyone is going to be personally affected, whether it’s by trying to help a depressed sibling or struggling to overcome your own affliction.

It’s such a common problem, yet we’re still implicitly told it’s somehow our fault if we become ill, or even worse, that we’ll only be “free” when we’re dead.

Those who struggle with mental illness already have enough hurdles to overcome. Accessing treatment or paying for it is a challenge, and finding the right mix of medication and therapy can be difficult.

As we continue to work to improve the situation, and come up with better ways to help people before they lose hope of finding happiness once again, we all need to take a moment to think about what we’re saying when we talk about mental illness, whether intentional or not.

There is a way to gain freedom from the clutches of these illnesses, and that way is by staying alive and getting the help we need — and that’s something we all can work at by supporting those who are ill and not blaming them for their unwanted suffering.

While we mourn the loss of Williams, let’s also work to prevent more people from being lost. It’s not as easy as retweeting a cartoon image, but with stakes this high, it’s worth the effort.

Ryan Johnson writes for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

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Ryan Johnson
After four years of covering news for the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Ryan Johnson has been a features reporter for The Forum's Variety section since 2013. His prior beats included politics, business, city government and higher education. Johnson is a 2008 alumnus of the University of North Dakota. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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