The upside of the terribly distressing and sad loss of Robin Williams is that people are talking a lot about suicide these days. The discussion, however, tends to focus on the mental health of individuals — perhaps the central feature of suicidal processes — and less on the families and communities in which individuals function and are impacted by. For example, research has shown that family ties are important for preventing suicide. Having strong family ties during childhood has long-term protective consequences. They provide a strong sense of belonging.
An often forgotten relationship in the discussion of suicide and suicide prevention are siblings. There is now a decent body of literature that suggests that positive sibling relationships can buffer the negative effects of stressful or harmful environments such as living in families with domestic violence, substance abuse, divorce, and with peer bullying. When sibling relationships are good, individuals have trustworthy confidants with similar histories — a person (or people) to seek out when the world seems overwhelming and hopeless. Individuals are more willing to discuss taboo and difficult topics — such as sex and suicide — with siblings than with parents.
Robin Williams had two half-brothers. Research has shown that the further children are in the birth order, the higher the risk of depression and suicide (partially attributed to the quality of early childhood ties). Although Williams was the youngest, he essentially grew up as an only child. He did not even know he had one brother until he was a few years old (Robert Williams) and the other until the age of 9 (McLaurin Smith Williams). Although they met sporadically throughout their lives and described their relationships as good, they could not have been considered to be close relationships. Family ties early in development are most critical and Williams did not have close relationships with his brothers early in childhood as he didn’t even know they existed.
This is not to say that Robin Williams committed (or was a victim of) suicide because of his sibling relationships, or even his early family ties. Suicide is exceptionally complicated and does involve mental health challenges, is often accompanied by drugs and/or alcohol, and typically an impulsive act. Individuals even from well-functioning families still do commit suicide (although at lower rates). My point is that when we discuss ways to prevent suicide, discussions should go beyond individual mental health considerations, and also consider families and how fostering strong family ties and positive sibling relationships can have life-saving capabilities years later. Building positive sibling relationships is in many ways more doable than treating lifelong depression, and can actually go a long way in lessening the affects of depression.
Finally, families live in social environments that can support or undermine them. To prevent suicide, we need communities to support families, build family and sibling ties, and give individuals the connections that prevent feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
My thoughts go out to Robin’s family, his wife, children, and to his one remaining sibling.