Bioethics Blogs

Robin Williams’ Death by Suicide and Three Ethics-related Reflections

Barbara Russell reflects on some ethical issues surrounding the recent death by suicide of actor Robin Williams.

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First, premature death is tragic. This is echoed in many published or broadcasted comments from Robin Williams’ friends, professional colleagues, and fans. Their responses acknowledge the intrinsic goodness of a person living or trying to live a human and humane life, including their hopes, perspectives, and experiences. Instrumentally, goodness resides in the person’s strengths, talents, ideas, and relationships.

Thinking about what is lost from Williams’ death led me to think about all we lose from Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit individuals who take their own lives. Each has talents, hopes, perspectives, and relationships that tragically end prematurely. The suicide rate of these groups of people, especially youth, is 5 to 11 times higher than the suicide rate of other Canadian groups.

The social determinants of health contribute to the high rate of attempted and actual suicide among Aboriginal groups. Contributing factors include historic colonization and contemporary disregard, poverty, un- or under- or unstable employment, insufficient or interrupted education, and inadequate housing. In Williams’ case, I wonder if some people’s shock and surprise reflect a belief that positive determinants of health – such as financial success, employment longevity, ready access to healthcare services, connections with powerful people, public recognition – guarantee or at the very least safeguard mental well-being. 

Some say Williams recently learned he had Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, neurologically disabling condition. Some have reported he has been dealing with severe depression lately.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.