News and analysis
August 22, 2014

How 4 Suicide-Prevention Groups Responded to the Death of Robin Williams

Cindy Ord/Getty Images

A makeshift memorial for Robin Williams in front of Carolines on Broadway comedy club in New York City.

Jamie Tworkowski was, of all things, on his way to see a movie starring the recently deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman when he heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide.

"My sister noticed something on Twitter and just said it," Mr. Tworkowski recalls. "And like everyone, I was shocked."

But unlike most people, Mr. Tworkowski had to respond. Mr. Tworkowski is the founder and creative director of To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit that helps those struggling with depression, addiction, and thoughts of suicide.

Mr. Williams’s death on August 11 presented a unique, if uncomfortable, opportunity for nonprofits dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness. The news carried with it a rare possibility to address this sensitive cause publicly.

An overeager reaction, however, would seem callous and exploitative. The wrong response could even be dangerous given the phenomenon of suicide contagion, whereby the attention given to one suicide can trigger others.

Organizations like Mr. Tworkowski’s faced some tough questions: How do we respond? What statements do we make? Do we promote the organization? Do we attempt to raise money?

Here’s how four of them answered.

American Association of Suicidology
"There was a lot of conversation about how to do this tastefully."

The American Association of Suicidology is the nation’s oldest suicide-prevention organization. Michelle Cornette, however, just joined the association as its executive director in June.

When she first heard the news, she fired off a quick Facebook post that read: "RIP Robin Williams. If you need help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ‘1-800-273-TALK (8255)" The post was shared 433 times, more than double the number shared of its previous 25 posts combined.

The next morning, the suicidology association distributed responsible-reporting guidelines for those covering Mr. Williams’s death. The organization posted five times on Facebook: a link to the guidelines, an official statement, a mention that Ms. Cornette would be appearing on MSNBC, and a promotion for its T-shirt campaign that was already under way. It posted a similar string of messages on Twitter, far exceeding its typical social-media output.

The organization’s official statement on Mr. Williams’s death also mentioned the T-shirt campaign but did not provide direct links for giving.

Ms. Cornette estimates that she the organization’s president and its board chair combined made about 25 media appearances. All three also gathered for a Twitter chat, a first for the group.

On August 14, the trio had what Ms. Cornette calls "a very careful conversation" about the fundraising appeal the association would put on its website in response to Mr. Williams’s death.

"We didn’t want to do anything that would be sensationalizing his death or loss," Ms. Cornette says. "There was a lot of conversation about how to do this tastefully."

The result was a photograph of teenagers locking arms, with the text: "Robin Williams’ Tragic Death / Join the fight against suicide / AAS’ U OK? Campaign / Click here for more info." It remains the site’s lead image.

On August 15, Ms. Cornette e-mailed a more personal message to the organization’s supporters detailing how supporters they could get "involved in the fight against suicide." It included links to a donation page, the T-shirt campaign, and the organization’s social- media accounts.

Ms. Cornette feels the group's response was appropriately restrained but believes suicide-prevention organizations are unfairly handcuffed when responding to major media events.

"Someone recently said to me, The American Red Cross doesn’t feel badly about fundraising in the wake of a tragedy," Ms. Cornette says. "This is a question that doesn’t get raised in other areas. And I think it’s because of the stigma [around suicide]."

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
"Maybe we should have been more aggressive."

Despite 16 years as the group's CEO, Robert Gebbia has never seen a week quite like the one that followed Mr. Williams’s death.

"There’s been other celebrities, but it’s always been questionable whether it was an overdose or not," Mr. Gebbia says.

Mr. Gebbia and his team worked quickly August 11 to produce a short statement on Mr. Williams’s death. They then turned their attention to the media early the next morning.

The foundation pushed its own version of responsible reporting guidelines and followed up with vigilant monitoring of media coverage. On August 13, the organization grew frustrated enough with some coverage that it released a second statement titled "Suicide is NOT Cowardly."

"There were some media reports raising the issue if this was a cowardly act. Was this a selfish choice? And that really infuriated us," says Mr. Gebbia.

The organization also reprimanded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for a tweet that it felt romanticized suicide.

Meanwhile, the foundation was busy posting tweets of its own. On August 12 alone, it tweeted 35 times after not posting a single message during the three days preceding his death.

Many of the tweets directed users to resources where they could learn more about suicide and suicide prevention. Others linked to the many media appearances by the group's staff.

"We were inundated," Mr. Gebbia says. "I think in the first 48 hours we had 47 media requests running the gamut from local radio to national publications."

Mr. Gebbia says the foundation considered a direct fundraising appeal but ultimately felt it would have been in poor taste.

The organization did, however, tweet four times about various fundraising campaigns that have sprouted organically on its behalf. They include a riff on the ALS ice-bucket challenge that encourages people to cover their face in pie like Mr. Williams’s character in the film "Mrs. Doubtfire." According to the official fundraising page, that campaign has so far raised $1,665.

On August 15, with coverage winding down, Mr. Gebbia sent an email to the group's supporters detailing the amount of attention Mr. Williams’s death had generated for the organization.

Mr. Gebbia says he didn’t feel comfortable linking to a donation page in the message, although the decision was a difficult one.

"I’ll be the first to admit, maybe we should have been more aggressive," Mr. Gebbia says. "I think there’s time for that. The consciousness has been raised on this issue."

To Write Love on Her Arms
"If you write something that connects ... that’s more significant than making a statement."

To Write Love on Her Arms began in 2006 with a MySpace post from Mr. Tworkoswski about a friend battling depression. So it’s no surprise that the organization’s response to Mr. Williams’s death revolved around a small social-media effort.

Shortly after hearing the news, Mr. Tworkoswki sent out a tweet: "If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here. If you feel too much, don’t go."

The message was also posted on the organization’s other social-media accounts.

Mr. Tworkowski later wrote a relatively spare blog post on the organization’s website that built upon his initial message. It did not mention Mr. Williams or suicide.

"I just know it was one of those moments where it’s our place to say something," Mr. Tworkowski says. "There’s thousands and thousands of people sitting at their computers, looking at their phones, and maybe feeling permission to be honest about what they were feeling."

The post, titled "There Is Still Some Time," contained a list of one-sentence affirmations. It received 24,000 likes on Facebook.

On August 13, Mr. Tworkowski saw an Instagram post by the actress Sophia Bush about Mr. Williams’s death. Mr. Tworkowski texted the actress and asked if his organization could repost her thoughts. The actress gave her approval, and the resulting blog post received 4,700 Facebook likes.

Being less specifically focused on suicide prevention and awareness than the other groups, the organization did not issue media guidelines or an official statement on Mr. Williams’s death.

"If you write something that connects and people share it, that’s more significant than making a statement," says Mr. Tworkowski. "Our message was one for people who are struggling. It’s something that probably sets us apart from other charities. Our number-one priority is trying to move people, to try and be honest, to try and get people to see it’s OK to ask for help."

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
"I’m not an ambulance chaser."

When the news broke about Robin Williams's death, the group had hosted a golf fundraiser and the post-outing dinner was just about to begin. The head of the organization, Daniel Reidenberg, commandeered the microphone, announced the news to the 150 or so people gathered, and proceeded to educate them about the causes of suicide and the value of prevention efforts.

"In that very moment, we were living out our mission," Mr. Reidenberg says. "Our organization is built on public awareness."

When the dinner ended, Mr. Reidenberg gathered his staff and handed out marching orders. The next few days would be busy ones.

"This is one of those moments where everything shifts and you have to focus on what is most immediate and most pressing," Mr. Reidenberg said. "Crisis calls come first. Grief calls come second. Media calls come third."

Mr. Reidenberg says he had media requests by 5 a.m. the next day and was in the office an hour later. The rest of the week was a media blizzard, with four straight days of interviews.

Outside Mr. Reidenberg’s one-man media campaign, though, the organization did almost nothing. It put a paragraph on the front page of its website expressing condolences and offering Mr. Reidenberg’s direct contact information for media but did not issue a formal statement. The group didn’t email supporters, promote media appearances, ask for donations, or even increase its social-media activity. The group's account posted only a single retweeted message about Mr. Williams.

Mr. Reidenberg says the lack of promotion was by design.

"I’m one of the only people I know who didn’t ask for money from all this," he says. "I don’t believe in that. I’m not an ambulance chaser."

He says his media appearances focused on raising awareness about suicide prevention and responsible media coverage, a mission he shares with the other organizations. Beyond that, Mr. Reidenberg says, he diverges from other organizations on the extent to which a nonprofit should promote or position itself in the wake of a major event like Mr. Williams’s death.

"I totally get that I’m different than everybody else, and I’m OK with that," he said, then paused. "I hope my board is, too."