Scene from Aladdin with caption 'Genie, you're free' could encourage people to see suicide as an option, say campaigners
The Hollywood Academy behind the Oscars has been accused of glorifying suicide over a tweet about Robin Williams's death.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posted a picture from a scene in the film Aladdin, in which Williams plays the genie, along with the caption: "Genie, you're free."
Genie, you're free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014
The image had been retweeted 318,000 times by Wednesday morning with some describing it as the iconic social media image of Williams's death.
However, suicide-prevention groups raised fears that the tweet encouraged the idea that suicide was an option – potentially promoting copycat behaviour among vulnerable people.
Ged Flynn, chief executive of the charity Papyrus, which works with young people, said he was "particularly concerned" that the tweet sent a harmful message to people in need of help.
He said: "Sensitive reporting of suicide – ie without detail of method or location – can have a positive outcome. It can help to reduce stigma, thus encouraging young people with suicidal thoughts to seek help. It is proven that comment that shares detail, such as some we have seen or heard in the last few hours relative to the suicide of Robin Williams, can encourage copycat suicides by those who are emotionally vulnerable.
"However, I am particularly concerned that use of the 'Genie, you're free' tweet could be seen as validation for vulnerable young people that suicide is an option. The most important message to be conveyed as a result of this sad death is: if you are feeling suicidal, talk to someone; there is help to see you through dark times."
Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said: "If it doesn't cross the line, it comes very, very close to it. Suicide should never be presented as an option. That's a formula for potential contagion."
Jane Powell, director of the support group Calm, which focuses on the prevention of male suicide, said the image was deeply unhelpful to young people with thoughts of suicide. "We all want Robin to be in a happier place but it's not a good message for people feeling suicidal, because we want them to stay with us and not go find some starry night escape with genies," she said.
"It's a very emotive, nice, friendly thought – but if you're feeling suicidal you're in huge pain, you would like to be free of that pain, and that is why it's an unhelpful image."
Alarm over the tweet came as the Samaritans condemned some media coverage of Williams's death, which was announced on Monday night after his body was discovered by his personal assistant. On Tuesday, officials confirmed that Williams was found hanged with superficial cuts to his wrists.
The Samaritans was on Wednesday contacting several newspapers, thought to include the Sun and Daily Mail, to raise concerns about the extent and detail of their coverage. Sophie Borromeo, director of communications at the Samaritans, said: "The media has come a long way over the past few years in terms of sensitively reporting suicide, which is why we are concerned to see that there have been a large number of articles detailing unnecessary information about the nature of Robin Williams's death. We are taking steps to address our concerns.
"Research shows that inappropriate portrayal of suicide in the media can lead to imitative behaviour amongst vulnerable people and this risk is heightened when a celebrity has died in this way. We issued a briefing to the media yesterday reminding them of these risks and specifically asking them to avoid reporting explicit details of the suicide method. We also offered guidance on reporting the death appropriately. For the most part it's positive to see the media has talked about the complexities of suicide and the need to break down the stigma around mental health issues, as well as encouraging people to seek help."
Suicide-prevention groups have privately warned media outlets about their coverage of celebrity suicides, over concerns that the extensive coverage risks encouraging copycat behaviour. Guidelines advise newspapers and broadcasters to avoid explicit details about suicide methods, even warning against disclosing the cause of death.
Williams's daughter, Zelda, 25, spoke of her "immeasurable loss" of her "father and best friend" and their struggle to come to terms with his suicide. "He was always warm, even in his darkest moments," she said. "While I'll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there's minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions."
• The Papyrus national helpline, HopeLineUK 0800 068 41 41, provides practical help to both young people and those who care for them.
• In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14
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