Dark Thoughts

Dark Thoughts

Robin Williams’ death is a wake-up call to recognize suicidal tendencies in others

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/21/2014

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Dear Patti,


I was so devastated when I heard the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. I’ve been a fan ever since he played Mork on “Mork and Mindy” and I probably have every single one of his movies. I knew that he had lots of substance abuse problems and was in and out of rehab, but what can cause someone to want to purposely end this magnificent gift of life they have been given? At 63, he still had so much ahead of him. What upsets me even more is to hear on the radio and read in the newspapers all these people saying, “Yeah, he seemed really depressed lately and I was worried something like this might happen.” If they suspected it even a tiny bit, why didn’t they do or say something to prevent it?! 


For me, it brought back memories of high school and one of my classmates committing suicide by slashing her wrists. She had talked about it and written poems about wanting to end her life, but everybody thought she was joking or just wanting attention. She was beautiful and popular and funny and to this day I still don’t understand what pushes people to kill themselves. Can you shed some light?  

— Cathie

Dear Cathie,


It’s a tragedy at any age when someone decides they can’t cope anymore and believes that the only solution to ending their deep emotional pain is suicide. You’re not alone in your frustration over seeking answers to unanswerable questions. Every suicide — or attempted suicide — is complicated with layers of unique issues. Whether the deceased is a celebrity or an ordinary person, it doesn’t diminish the sorrow, guilt and confusion felt by those left behind.  


When one of my patients talks to me about suicidal feelings, it’s something I take very seriously. While I’m always sensitive to the possibility that he or she could indeed carry out plans for an attempted suicide, I don’t believe they actually want to take this destructive step. Rather, they only want to end a life that no longer works for them and, in their view, holds little promise of ever getting better. Being pushed to a breaking point with unbearable dark emotions can make someone feel that suicide is the only way to stop the agony and torment. Sometimes there has to be a death for a rebirth to occur, but this doesn’t have to be a literal death. It’s the job of the therapist and patient to work together to explore what has to change in order for the suicidal thoughts to cease and the new life to occur. Suicidal ideation (thoughts and fantasies about suicide) is a wake-up call for change.


If a patient describes a particularly violent means of committing suicide, like your school friend slashing her wrists, it’s termed “self-murder” and reflects a repressed homicidal rage that has built up within and has become maladaptive against the self. It’s the goal of therapy to help the patient experience this inner rage without becoming self-destructive. Since no baby is born wanting to harm himself, this acting out comes from trauma and/or abuse. If, for example, someone fantasizes about shooting himself in the head, I can help him acknowledge who it is he really wants to shoot. I may have to worry about his grandmother or uncle but I probably won’t have to worry about him killing himself. 


A lot remains to be learned about the science of suicide and the influences of such factors as social and moral forces, genetics, substance abuse, depression, schizophrenia and other personality disorders. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1 million people worldwide die from suicide annually. Of these, only 10 percent are completely free of mental illness.


Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a noted expert on the subject of suicide until his death in 2009, stated that the main cause of suicide is psychological pain. In an interview he did with the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Shneidman was quoted as saying, “I still believe it’s critical to look at personal stories, emotional circumstances, and private histories in the study of suicide, not just the biology and pharmacology of suicide and depression.” He further added, “I believe that suffering is at the heart of every suicide. If I were to do it all over again, I would probably study love.”  


For anyone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts and needs immediate help, I urge them to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. 


Let us express empathy, compassion, love and condolences to Robin Williams and his family in honor of all the love and laughter he gave to us. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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