Matt’s View: Attitudes to depression and suicide must change after the death of Robin Williams

15:02 17 August 2014

Like many people I was saddened to read this week about the death of Robin Williams.

People of a similar age to me will remember Williams as the star of many of defining movies of our childhoods; Hook, Mrs Doubtfire, er, Flubber. And the 63-year-old was also a prodigiously talented stand-up, who is well worth looking up on YouTube if you’re not familiar with his work.

Sadly I feel Williams’ apparent suicide has led to some distasteful reactions in the media this week.

TalkSPORT radio presenter Alan Brazil claimed that he “didn’t have a lot of sympathy” for those who take their own life, saying on Monday: “I believe he’s got a daughter as well, what’s she feeling like this morning? Now she’s got to sort the arrangements out. I think it’s shocking, I really do. I don’t have a lot of sympathy, I’m sorry.”

Brazil’s attitude towards suicide and mental health problems is one that is probably echoed by many people, and I think it needs to change. There’s no way it would be acceptable for a presenter to say on air that they didn’t have sympathy for someone with cancer, but to have depression is a similarly debilitating and, often, fatal illness.

I believe it’s impossible to understand depression unless you’re the person who’s depressed, so reactions like Brazil’s show a staggering level of ignorance.

But the chance to have a proper debate about mental health problems and their prevalence in society will probably be lost because the newspapers seem obsessed by the method with which Williams took his life, rather than the reasons for it. You only have to look at the front pages of many national papers on Wednesday to find myriad gory details of what happened at the star’s home.

Obviously the newspapers have a duty to report the facts, but do we need this kind of stuff plastered across our front pages in such ghoulish fashion? It seems to me it’s purely there to titillate readers, rather than inform them.

“It’s noticeable that some newspapers are ignoring the Samaritans’ media reporting guidelines. Some articles are dwelling on the method,” Dr Claudia Hammond, presenter of BBC radio 4’s All In The Mind, told The Guardian. “This could be all it takes to encourage someone who was contemplating suicide to actually do it.”

I hope this isn’t the case, and that next time someone high profile commits suicide, it will be handled in a more sensitive fashion by the media.

• The Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90.

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