Part 2: A Memorial and Publicly Private Struggles

The following is part 2 of the post regarding “A Memorial and Publicly Private Struggles.”

Publicly Private Struggles

306514I’ve been keeping up with the various stories of humanity and kindness that have been pouring into the media from various sources. I cannot tell you how amazing it’s been to see one man’s ability to bring so much joy and wonder and opportunity to others.  It’s been beautiful.

On the flip side, I have no interest in reading the suicide-shaming articles… I see enough of that crap in comment threads and responses.

One article caught me off guard.  It was morbid sounding, but had come highly recommended by a friend back home in Chicago a few days ago. “Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves.” Here’s a snippet:

By now you know that Robin Williams has committed suicide, but I’m not here to talk about him. He’s gone, and you’re still here, and suicidal thoughts are so common among our readers and writers that our message board has a hidden section where moderators can coordinate responses to suicide threats. And in case you’re wondering, no, that’s not a joke — I remember the first time John tracked down a guy’s location and got an ambulance dispatched to his house. Then we all sat there, at 4 in the morning, waiting to hear if they got there in time (they did).

Because Cracked is driven by an army of aspiring comedy writer freelancers, the message boards are full of a certain personality type. And while I don’t know what percentage of funny people suffer from depression, from a rough survey of the ones I know and work with, I’d say it’s approximately “all of them.” So when I hear some naive soul say, “Wow, how could a wacky guy like [insert famous dead comedian here] just [insert method of early self-destruction here]? He was always joking around and having a great time!” my only response is a blank stare.

That’s honestly the equivalent of, “How can that cow be dead? She had to be healthy, because these hamburgers we made from her are delicious!”

I truly suggest you read it the entire thing – again, accessible here.

I found it particularly interesting and admirable to see the staff admit they, and their community, are not immune!  You do not see many brands or companies make that brave statement, as there is a cross-industry expectation to keep things under wraps for fear of public disapproval.

We have several clients who have (and appeal to) darker communities: communities prone to discussing self-harm, burdens, heart-wrenching dreams, epic personal struggles, etc.  We also have several clients who do not appeal, or target, those markets, and yet still have a certain percentage of actives who desire to reach out and discuss more difficult topics.  Why wouldn’t they?  You may join a community for a singular reason, but it is natural for you to connect and engage with the group in other ways, form bonds, and grow beyond your original intent for joining.

For us, as community managers and moderators, it is not rare to see a variety of behaviors – lighthearted and heavy – in digital communities, and we always have to be prepared to protect individuals, communities, and companies/brands universally.  People have layers, people have public personas, people have highs and lows, people have disabilities or struggles you may never see, and people may have diseases you just don’t understand.  And when someone makes a tragic decision, it’s so easy to be hard and create labels and accusations and desire something universally tangible to blame.  It reminds me a quote from from the song “I Know It’s Over” by Johnny Morrisey and Johnny Marr (also covered by Jeff Buckley):

It’s so easy to love. It’s so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind… over, and over, and over.

It’s been fascinating to see the growing movement to acknowledge the disease of depression and suicide prevention.  I have seen so many hotlines and support sites shared across social media, and – even more compassionately – I’ve seen so many reminders of love, and offers of assistance.  I’ve also seen blogs directly from those who suffer from depression (clinically).  I may not fully understand the weight carried, but I will always take into account this point of view (and I’m not going to pretend it is the same for everyone, but I want to make sure it’s recognized):

Lately I have been finding myself uncomfortable with the way we talk about depression, especially when someone famous takes their life or mental illness is in the news. It feels like we have settled on a single narrative of how we can help others who are experiencing this, and while that may be helpful to some people (hopefully it is) it rings pretty hollow to me. I have read all the other essays, yes even that one, and they all sound the same to me.

“Depression lies” they say. “Get help” or “know that people care about you”. The problem for me is that I know that even though I know people care about me, I also know there is no help. I am locked into combat with my depression and the circle of people surrounding us can do nothing but yell.

I know that people love and care about me, that they would do anything to prevent me from ending my life (I feel insufferable writing that), but it does not matter. This is between me and my depression.

One of my clients in the past was a literature-related forum dedicated to teens.  These wonderfully creative, highly intelligent teens also, very often, wanted to discuss depression and suicide.  We had a few scare cases too, and luckily got to the individuals in time. Many times, on behalf of the client, we had (have) to step in and engage the conversation.  There is a fine line between the freedom to speak about a topic objectively and respectfully, and debates inciting opinion-bashing or self-abuse threats.  With the particular forum I mentioned, the rules and Terms of Service had to be re-written a few times to help the community understand how and why our staff approached sensitive topics as they did.  When a few people feel strongly about something, especially in a forum atmosphere, expectations and demands can spiral out of control quickly.

My best suggestion to anyone who has noticed a trend of difficult topics or  struggling community members is: do not try to rationalize someone’s issues, analyze the individual, or simplify someone’s issues to them.

  • Take your community members seriously, and swiftly,
  • Remind them they have value, and,
  • Immediately provide avenues for assistance from professional services.

imgresIf you’re in need of a professional service, we have partnered with (and help support) the amazing, a site provided by the Inspire Foundation. provides a platform for people to help one another, and talk things through with peers. It’s supported by a plethora of amazing partners and collaborators.

If you’re struggling, whether it be with someone in your community, or you yourself, speak out!  In the immortal last words of my other non-familial hero, Jim Henson:

“Please watch out for each other.
Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness.  Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart.”

Izzy Neis
Director of Engagement and Strategy

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