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Time In with Dr. Tim: Robin Williams’ tragic death can spark needed conversations

August 22, 2014

They knew him as the genie in Aladdin, from the adventure Jumanji or the Night at the Museum movies. It may be disturbing to children to see that Robin Williams — someone they admired, who seemed to have everything — wasn’t able to resolve his issues in a positive way. But his tragic death may help us talk to our children about mental illness and how people can get the help they need.

It’s another opportunity to remind us to pay attention to our children’s behavior and look for signs that may indicate depression, anxiety or other serious, but treatable, mental health problems.

Remember that the symptoms of dangerous depression may look different in children and teens than they do in adults. You know your child best. Look for changes in behavior, and pay attention to off-hand comments that might have deeper meaning. Listen for things like:

“You won’t have to worry about that much longer.”

“You’d be better off without me.”

“I just can’t take it any more.”

Then do one hard thing.

If you think your child is having serious problems, ask them. Ask “Are you thinking about killing yourself or have you thought about suicide?”

That question may begin the most important conversation you’ll ever have with your child. Don’t worry that asking about suicide will make your child more likely to make an attempt. Research has shown that it doesn’t.

Youth who are in imminent danger of suicide often discuss their intentions, verbally threaten to kill themselves or take concrete steps toward suicide, such as collecting pills or securing a weapon. A young person may talk or write in a journal about death, forming a specific plan.

Substance abuse increases the risk of suicide. Other risk factors include:

  • Diagnosed mental illness, mood disorder, depression or anxiety
  • A family history of suicide or a suicide in the child’s school or peer group
  • A history of impulsive, aggressive or disruptive behavior
  • Family conflict or recent stressful life event
  • Incidents of bullying – both the bully and the victim can be at risk
  • Access to lethal means, like the availability of guns, drugs or other items that can be easily used to commit suicide

So if you ask your child that hard question, and the answer is “yes,” explain lovingly that suicide is never an option, that you love and support him or her and that you will get help and work on this together. Then call a crisis hotline and seek out a mental health professional.

Even if your child says “no” to this question but you think your child could benefit from a talk with a mental health professional, find a good one. Ask for recommendations from people you trust or use one of the online therapist locator links from a trusted group like the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association or the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

Youth Villages operates crisis response services for children under age 18 in most of Tennessee. A list of crisis telephone numbers is here. In other states, crisis hotlines are available or you can ask your child’s pediatrician for recommendations. If you ever feel your child is a danger to himself or others, call 911 and ask for an immediate connection to appropriate help in your community.

Here are other resources:

It’s important to remember that suicide is more prevalent in Robin Williams’ demographic group than for children and youth. Accidents, especially automobile accidents, are the leading cause of death for young people, followed by homicide and then suicide. Most of our teens won’t have dangerous mental health issues. Almost all of them will be on the road as teen drivers or passengers in vehicles driven by their friends. Stressing seatbelt, mobile phone and texting safety should always be a top priority for parents.


Dr. Tim Goldsmith, Youth Villages' chief clinical officer

Dr. Tim Goldsmith, Youth Villages’ chief clinical officer

Tim Goldsmith, Ph.D., is chief clinical officer at Youth Villages, where he directs a staff of clinical specialists who oversee the work we do with children and families across the country.

Dr. Tim and his core clinical managers have experience helping children with the most serious problems. Together, they oversee the counselors and specialists who work directly with parents, teaching them ways to help their children overcome serious problems and go on to do well at home, at school and in the community. This year, our clinical and counseling staff will help more than 22,000 children across the country.

Now Dr. Tim and his staff of experts can answer your questions, too. All parents have moments when they wish they could consult with an expert. If you have a question about your tween or teen’s behavior, send it to DrTim@youthvillages.org.

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