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Hopeful Lessons from Robin Williams and Kurt Cobain

Hopeful Lessons from Robin Williams and Kurt CobainI’m old enough to remember Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, and what a major cultural and news event it was.

Although there have been other celebrity deaths in the years since, it’s only now with Robin Williams that a suicide has had as much attention and social magnitude.

The differences over time are striking. Social media has changed the nature of news as well as the conversation about news, and blogs make it easy for anyone to publish online what once might have been op-eds and letters to the editor in paper newspapers and magazines. Retweets and faves on @unsuicide reached an all-time high this week, with more people interested in both learning about and sharing information on suicide prevention. Mashable noticed a powerful and far-reaching positive change in the dialogue about suicide.

The nature of the conversation has changed, too. Where once there was derision, insensitive jokes, and shame about suicide, with Robin Williams’ death people are overall more understanding of his struggles with addiction and depression.

Kurt and Robin were both believed to have bipolar disorder, but while the condition was more stigmatized in Kurt’s time, people are now sharing resources, personal experiences, and info about bipolar with #RIPRobinWilliams. He is understood to have died by suicide, which is caused by depression, not having “committed” (a word now discouraged) a selfish act. While 25-50% of people with bipolar attempt suicide, 8-19% die from it (Latalova et al, 2014).

Articles, posts, status updates, and tweets ask those with suicidal thoughts to get help, instead of shaming them. Suicide attempt survivors are being interviewed in mass media. Newly organized and visible with modern technology, in 1994 we rarely identified ourselves. We’re now calling for concrete solutions.

The Way Forward,” a 2014 report by the Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force of the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention, outlines many ways to engage with those who have valuable experiential knowledge, in service planning, delivery, and evaluation, research and more.

One recommendation is requiring mental health professionals to have training in treating suicidal individuals. Currently only two states, Kentucky and Washington, require this training with licensing. The California assembly is now considering a bill to do the same.

Afraid of liability and unsure of their skillset, too often suicidal clients are refused treatment by therapists in a kind of “pass the hot potato.” Some are asked to sign no-suicide contracts before treatment, instead of working together to develop safety plans. In telling people to get help, we need that help to be qualified, appropriate, and ready to provide treatment.

The HelpPRO Suicide Prevention Therapist Finder is a useful tool, until a future where everyone is trained. Use the directory to locate American therapists trained to offer help to people who are suicidal.

On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, at 8:00pm ET I’ll be hosting the #MHSM Tweetchat, collaborating with clinicians, peer researchers, and academics from UBC’s CREST_BD bipolar disorders research group. We’ll be discussing resiliency and self-management for suicide prevention strategies in bipolar disorder. Please join us, especially if like me, Kurt, and Robin, suicidal thoughts from bipolar disorder affect you.

We’ve learned so much since Kurt Cobain died. With Robin Williams, it’s inspiring that we’re using mass and social media coverage of the tragedy as an opportunity to not only express our grief and pay tribute to another gifted artist who died too soon, but also share hope and ways to get help.


If you are having suicidal thoughts, reach out. Find a helpline near you with this directory. If you’d rather not use a phone, Online Suicide Help lists international options for e-mental health supports.

Hopeful Lessons from Robin Williams and Kurt Cobain

Sandra Kiume

Sandra Kiume is a mental health advocate. Along with contributing to World of Psychology, she blogs at Channel N about brain and behaviour videos, and is the founder of @unsuicide and Online Suicide Help. She lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

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APA Reference
Kiume, S. (2018). Hopeful Lessons from Robin Williams and Kurt Cobain. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.