‘You're free, Genie’: Why The Academy's goodbye to Robin Williams was dangerously irresponsible

Suicide isn't freedom - it's a cry for help that always comes too late


Yesterday, news broke of Robin Williams’ death through suicide. The world mourned, and articles and tributes to the comedian flooded cyberspace.

Among them was a tweet by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. It included an image of one of Robin’s most beloved characters, the genie, hugging Aladdin goodbye against a backdrop of a starry night sky. It read: “Genie, you’re free.”

Robin Williams: the darkness and the light were indivisible

I find that message troubling. Its immediate simplicity belies extraordinary scope for misinterpretation and misrepresentation. It could have even broken The Samaritans' guidelines for media on reporting on suicide, which warn against anything that might “suggest that people are honouring the suicidal behaviour, rather than mourning a death”. Despite the Academy's sentiment, suicide is not freedom. It's a cry for help that always comes too late.

As I write, the Academy’s post has been retweeted by 300,000 people, and "favourited" by 210,000. According to one analytics site, this means that as many as 69 million people have seen it.

I have seen it shared all over Facebook, and – oddly - commended in an article (now amended) by the Huffington Post, for eliciting the “most emotional response” from fans.

It has resonated, and no wonder. I’ll admit that my initial reaction was positive. The sentiment was loving, coupling Disney’s comforting familiarity with a poignant farewell. But I felt a whisper of unease, and as I saw more and more people share, quote, and "like" the thing, the louder that whisper grew until it massed to a certain clamour that said: no.

To intimate, however subtly or unintentionally that taking your own life is a liberating action, is irresponsible and dangerous. While someone who is not suicidal might look at the picture of the genie and find comfort, someone whose mind is weighed heavy by depression may see something dangerously different.

To simplify and make cosy Williams' death only reinforces the cheerful Hollywood veneer behind which he hid his grief. For the sake of the living, it is crucial that the news of his death be handled with scrupulous care.

It’s a point so often made but evidently worth repeating: the immediacy of social networks, and the fantastic speed with which a thought might spread and develop, places tremendous responsibility on those who would use them. The Academy has almost 800,000 followers on Twitter.

The Academy's response to Robin Williams' death on Twitter The Academy's response to Robin Williams' death on Twitter  











Media guidelines for reporting suicides exist because any ill-considered coverage, even that which is harmless at first glance, can have devastating repercussions. Suicide contagion is a proven hazard in high-profile cases. You do not romanticise, you must not inspire. Above all, you prioritise the feelings of those who are left behind.

Perhaps the most disturbing post I have seen is one on a Facebook page set up yesterday called “RIP Robin Williams”. The page used the same movie still as the Academy, however the words read: “11 August 2014 – the day the genie set himself free”.

On Monday night, Williams’ third wife released a statement. She said: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Had Robin’s death been the inevitable end of some physical illness, The Academy’s message would have been appropriate. But while his fate today is irreversible, on Sunday it was not. His passing was the conclusion of a terrible thought process which convinced him that he had just one way out. And any suggestion that suicide might be an agonised mind’s only route to peace must surely break the heart of anyone now battling to help a loved one see a different light.

Video: The death of Robin Williams

I loved Robin Williams. He had an exquisite genius, and his work made him a hero for me. I am dismayed that he is gone. I’m quite certain that whoever wrote The Academy's message meant well, but it is also painfully evident that they posted it completely ignorant to the way in which it could be read.

Reporting on suicide should cater to the living, not the dead. And messages of hope for the dead need to be categorically distinct from those we send to the living. Only the living read Twitter.

Samaritans is available round-the-clock on 08457 90 90 90 or email: jo@samaritans.org

NHS Choices offers help for anyone dealing with issues around suicide

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