Suicide is never “gotta set myself free” – a letter to Epic Rap Battles and a discussion on how we talk about suicide

Sunday entry instead of a Monday one, but it’s an important and timely one.

If you are a nerd like me, and you’ve spent any time on YouTube, chances are you have come across Epic Rap Battles of History. They are a YouTube channel which hosts rap battles between historical or celebrity figures. They lampoon everyone, and they are so, so clever and funny. I’ve always loved them and get excited when they publish a new video.

Early this morning, they premiered their latest battle between George Carlin and Richard Pryor. The battle, as usual, was hilarious. This one featured guest appearances be Joan Rivers and Robin Williams. Williams appears last, and it’s his last line which causes the problem:

Again, that last verse:

“I love the prince
but you’ll never have a friend like me
Thanks folks that’s my time
Gotta set myself free”

And Williams disappears into the top of the screen.

That last line is clearly a reference to William’s suicide in August 2014. And that line is a huge problem. Suicide should never, ever be discussed as a freeing option, one which somehow frees people from the bonds of pain and life. Suicide is not an option. Discussing it as a positive thing frames it in a positive way, and that encourages others to look at suicide as if it should be considered.

Some of you may remember that this isn’t the first time that William’s suicide was displayed this exact way, using the same language (which is a reference to both the suicide itself and Genie’s desire to be free in Aladdin). After William’s suicide, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put out this tweet:

The tweet was criticized by suicide prevention activists. It made suicide appear celebratory, a victory over depression and pain, and a viable option for anyone who hurts. This can never, ever be the case.

From the article:

  • Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: “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.”
  • Ged Flynn, chief executive of the charity Papyrus: 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.”
  • Jane Powell, director of the support group Calm, “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.

This is needed largely because suicide contagions are real: After William’s suicide, suicides increased by 10%. And, as the study I linked to notes, media coverage of suicide can be critical to how the coverage of suicide influences suicidiality in others. There are media recommendations for how to cover suicide (I actually tweeted it yesterday, before this video, in reference to an ongoing situation in my home region which thankfully ended well).

One of the key recommendations is not to glamorize suicide or present it as an option. The media has failed that before: Epic Rap Battles failed it here. Do I think they did this on purpose? No, absolutely not. I think it’s an honest mistake. But I hope it’s one they correct.

Again, here are the facts:

  • In 2017, over 47,000 Americans took their own life. These are the highest rates of suicide since World War 2.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the 2nd leading cause of death for 10-24 year-olds.
  • Suicide rates have increased 33% since 1999.

We have an epidemic, or, in the words of Congersswoman Susan Wild (D-PA), a national emergency. National emergencies require being addressed on all fronts. One of those is cultural and communication. No one with a platform over over fourteen million subscribers should make such a casual reference to suicide and describe it as “gotta set myself free.” I’m hoping this was unintentional. And I hope that ERB will consider changing the video.

And to everyone else: Please watch how you discuss suicide. Please take it seriously. And please use person-first language which ensures that we let people know they are loved and cared for, and that we never, ever, ever want them to “set themselves free.”