Depression, Suicide and Wisdom in the Digital Age

I’m really not sure what to do with all of the social media commentary around Robin Williams’ death. The frenzy was as fast and furious as it was predictable; I saw the first social media post using Mr. Williams’ death make points about mental illness and suicide within two hours of seeing the news that he was dead. All sorts of self-appointed experts are expounding all sort of (often contradictory) views. Just scrolling through the first dozen items in my news feed over lunch, I saw six different and contradictory opinions advanced by nine different posts:

  • Suicide is cowardly; suicide is brave.
  • Suicide is a sin; suicide is not a sin.
  • We shouldn’t even use the word suicide, but should instead say he died of mental illness; we should say he died of suicide as a result of mental illness.

Some small fraction of those views may actually be factually correct and philosophically true. (I do believe in miracles, after all.) But I think more than teaching us anything about mental illness, depression, alcoholism/addiction, or suicide, the ongoing aftermath Mr. Williams’ death has much to teach us about wisdom, intelligence and expertise in the digital age. Anyone with a video camera or a keyboard and an internet connection can suddenly broadcast their views on any given subject to the four winds, to be picked up, shared, re-shared and spread around; veracity is measured in “likes”, “shares” and “hits” rather than in scientifically-based verifiability, and value judgments are based on how much a particular piece tugs at our heartstrings or agrees with our previously-held beliefs. First person blog posts about the author’s experience with mental illness or with the suicide of a loved one are uncritically taken as having more value than clinical research on a medical topic. This is problematic, and actually hinders our progress toward preventing suicide, understanding mental illness, and caring for the people who suffer from it.

As an analogy, I drive a 2006 Hyundai Tucson, and therefore I have a certain perspective on that particular vehicle, based on my experience of one particular example of it and colored, no doubt, by my own preferences and prejudices. My perspective on it has some value, but it doesn’t make me more of an expert on the vehicle itself than the engineer who designed it, the line workers who assembled it or the mechanic who has spent two decades working on cars generally and eight years working on ’06 Tucsons specifically. Likewise, the perspective of people who have suffered or do suffer from mental illness or addiction and the perspective of people who are survivors of suicide is important, but it is not a privileged perspective compared to the perspective of people who spend a lot of time studying and researching these issues. I’ve lost dear friends to suicide and have been hospitalized twice for depression myself, but that doesn’t make me an expert on these issues. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to give my perspective on these issues more weight than say, the National Institutes of Mental Health.

One of the great boons of living in the digital age is the unprecedented level of freedom and ability the internet gives us to express ideas, perspectives and opinions. The great challenge is that freedom always carries with it responsibility, and it is now our responsibility to think critically and carefully about which voices we grant the most authority to.

(And yes, I recognize the irony of writing a blog post sharing my opinions about unfettered opinion-sharing in the digital age. Now get out there and share this and like this; daddy needs to see his hit count go up.)

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