Following the suicide on Monday of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams, who struggled for decades with depression, calls to mental-health crisis hotlines and page views on support websites have spiked, according to staffers who operate them.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide network of 160 local crisis-support centers, reported that that on Aug. 10, the day before Williams’ death, the hotline received around 3,000 phone calls to 1-800-273-TALK — which is “fairly typical,” said Shari Sinwelski, associate project director for the network.
But on Aug. 12, the day after Williams’ death, the hotline received 7,375 calls, the highest number of phone calls the organization has ever received.
Similarly, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots mental health support and advocacy organization, experienced a 20 percent increase of calls to its hotline, 1-800-950-NAMI, in the days following Williams’ death, said Katrina Gay, NAMI’s national director of communications.
NAMI’s Facebook page also experienced a surge in traffic. While it normally receives about 91,000 page views per day, on Tuesday the page received 1.1 million, and 1.4 million page views the following day. Email messages, interaction through NAMI’s Tumblr page and private messages on its Facebook page have all skyrocketed, Gay said.
It remains unclear if the increased traffic is an indication of the success of messaging after Williams’ death when mental-health professionals urged distressed people to seek help, a result of more people having suicidal thoughts as a result of such a high-profile case, or a combination of the two.
A suicide of a well-known person has been known to trigger suicidal thoughts in other people.
"Sometimes when people see a high-profile suicide such as this one, or when they hear about the suicide of another person, they may recognize some of those feelings within themselves,” Sinwelski said.
The increased call volume could also mean that people who are feeling emotionally distressed and weren’t previously aware of resources like the hotlines have realized there’s a place to turn for help.
“Suicide is a topic that is not really talked about a lot in open communication, so there’s a lot of people who didn’t know about us,” Sinwelski said. If someone is having suicidal thoughts, they may have learned “there’s a resource and can go out and get help.”
Gay thinks it’s too soon to know whether Williams’ death has spiked the general public’s awareness about suicide and depression, but she’s since been asked to speak as a guest on business news programs and other platforms unrelated to health. “I would say that’s a good sign,” she said.
This is not first time the suicide of a public figure has spurred outreach. Suicide crisis lines in the Seattle area saw a significant increase in calls after singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain took his life in 1994, according to a study by Catholic University of America psychology professor David Jobes.
To be sure, crisis hotlines are not meant to be long-term solutions for people who are depressed or suicidal, but rather are intended to provide support in the moment by assessing the caller’s risk of suicide according to established guidelines, and then to collaboratively come up with a plan for next steps, according to Sinwelski.
For many callers, to simply express that they are feeling suicidal and have someone listen to them without expressing shock is “enough in that moment to make them feel better and empowered,” she said. “For some, however, the situation is much more urgent.”
Only in the most severe cases will hotline staffers follow up with a caller, so it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of the hotlines.
“It’s been very hard to establish with certainty whether a lifeline, a call line really makes a difference in local suicide rates,” said Dr. Eric Caine, co-director of the Center for the Study of prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who recently worked on a federal task force charged with re-drafting the national suicide prevention strategy.
He was quick to emphasize his support for suicide hotlines, adding, “What I do know is that highly distressed people call. The number of people who have suicidal thoughts or ideas far outweigh the number of people who attempt.”
Studies on suicide prevention hotlines suggest that they do work. A team led by Madelyn Gould, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University Medical Center and a top expert in suicide, reviewed more than 1,000 calls to suicide hotlines and followed up with 380 of the callers. They found “significant decreases” in the callers’ risk of suicide (PDF) during the course of the phone call, and that callers’ hopelessness and psychological pain continued to lessen in the weeks following the call.
Sinwelski, who has studied Gould’s work, said, “Many spontaneously reported that it [the call] saved their life.”
For Eric Marcus, the senior director for loss and bereavement programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, seeking support was crucial after his sister-in-law committed suicide in 2008.
He said he remembered “consciously thinking to myself, ‘I cannot do this by myself.’”