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Wednesday, August 13, 2014 

"In America they really do mythologise people when they die."

The unexpected death of a celebrity always seems to bring out the absolute worst in the media, and it has to be said, the "new" media especially.  The beyond dispute facts when it comes to Robin Williams are that he took his own life, and had by his own admission long battled addiction and depression.  Everything else is conjecture and guesswork, completely unnecessary cruel and invasive guesswork at that.

There's a cycle that works in these cases somewhat like this.  First, the shock of the news.  Second, the reports from where fans have gathered and/or left tributes.  Third, the tributes from those who actually knew the deceased.  Fourth, the tributes from those who might have met the deceased once or maybe even twice, but nonetheless have been commissioned to write however many words on the person "they knew".  Fifth comes the standard revisionism from the critics, most of whom a week back were probably slaughtering the deceased's last project, urged by their editors to look back and find something they can praise and so make clear what a genius the sadly departed was.  Sixth, the tabloids start looking for why someone with seemingly everything to live for could do such a thing, and then in turn, the new media and people like me start responding to that.

And so on.  It's not exactly what's happened since the news broke late on Monday night, but it's fairly close.  Knowing Williams had reached the point where he no longer wanted to go on living, it makes it especially crass when those affecting to have been moved or inspired by him are even now still far more concerned with everything being about them.  Who knows, perhaps Russell Brand had been thinking about Williams, although it seems highly unlikely considering the only person Russell Brand seems capable of thinking about is Russell Brand, as his ejaculation in the pages of the Graun amply demonstrates.  Brand's prose is so overwrought, so self-referential, so solipsistic, only the Guardian could have ever thought it was worthy of being spunked over the front page.  Brand's shtick is to appear to be aware of his own contradictions when in fact he's completely oblivious to them, vacuous to the very end.  Yes, people with "masks less interesting than the one Robin Williams wore" are suffering, but please spare us the thought Williams' suicide tells us anything about their individual woes, or that being more vigilant, aware, grateful, "mindful" will help them.

The same goes for this specious notion genius, especially comic genius, goes hand in hand with a hidden internal sadness or heightened personal problems.  Being extraordinary means there has to be something lurking beneath, making them just as human as the rest of us, right?  Turn that idea around and it makes far more sense: that they're just like us, and just as susceptible to depressive illness and all the rest of it.  Those who have it the worst are the ones who can't articulate the way they feel, not those of us blessed/cursed with being able to express ourselves either through speech or the written word, the ones who can't understand why it is they think the way they do.

This is why it comes across as patronising in the extreme when those with personal experience of mental illness speak as though they are fully representative of some imaginary community of the afflicted.  Alastair Campbell doesn't do this in his sensitive piece, but his suitability for the role of "mental health ambassador" has always been dubious.  Far more objectionable is Mary Hamilton's insistence that the amount of detail included in most media reporting on Williams' death is dangerous.  I've written in the past about some genuinely thoughtless or worse journalism on suicide, and to compare that with this week's coverage is a nonsense.  Treating the suicidally depressed as though they are too stupid to know how to hang themselves or cut their wrists is laughable; yes, Hamilton says, people can Google and get far more detailed instructions, but that interaction acts as check.  Presumably going to actually get a belt, rope or knife wouldn't play the exact same role then.

Hamilton also implies suicide is not rational, and there are also never any good reasons to kill yourself.  The suicidally depressed may not be thinking rationally, but to infer it is never rational, or it is never the least worst option is just as stigmatising as the people who say suicide is selfish or express opinions similar to those Campbell quotes Jeremy Hunt as doing.  The NHS doesn't have the best record when it comes to mental health, hardly surprising when funding for treatment is always going to come second to the newest cancer drug proven to extend life by a few weeks, and the real terms cut isn't going to help matters, but provision is arguably better than it has ever been, as is understanding and sympathy, although it can still only get better.  Claiming hyperbolically there is an acute crisis helps no one, especially those needing support who may well be put off even trying to get it.  Just as trigger warnings are infantile, so is the idea newspaper front pages alone can make illness worse.  Media taken as a whole, old and new, is something else.

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