The sergeant, Jay Turner, signed the tweet “Jay,” but the avatar image for the account is a Hamilton Police Service badge and the account’s username is “@HPSActionTeam4.”
The tweet sparked an online reaction and a conversation about stigma and judgment connected to mental illness and depression. Experts say some studies show there is increase in suicides after high profile cases such as this.
Many people who saw Turner's message responded that they were offended that he appeared to blame Robin Williams for his mental illness. It's a response that doesn't reflect understanding of suicide and depression, some said.
One responder, a reporter at a Toronto talk radio station, found the message disturbing in part because of its corporate weight.
Turner began apologizing within 30 minutes for what he said was a misinterpretation of his sentiment.
An hour later, he said he had deleted the original message. He reiterated his apology.
And he added an apology to his personal account.
The apologies generated some support for Turner and his apparent intention. One responder acknowledged the sergeant’s attempt to draw some meaning from a tragedy.
The exchange demonstrates the “complex range of responses” people have to suicide, said Margaret McKinnon, an expert in psychology, psychiatry and mood disorders at McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
“What I read in that message is suicide is an incredibly challenging issue,” she said.
Depression is an illness like any other illness, she said. Society needs to continue to break down the stigma about the illness without judgment or blame for someone dealing with mental illness.
But, she said, incidents like these make it even more important to talk with each other and discuss these issues. Misunderstandings can grow without that discussion.
“I think people are acting from the heart,” she said. “What I think this reflects is that we all hope we can help.”
Police face mental health issues in the community and within their own ranks, she said, and they struggle to respond like everyone else.
Hamilton Police Service did not respond to request for comment.
But Tuesday, the Hamilton Police official account published an additional message:
McKinnon said people should talk with friends and family members who struggle with depression and mental illness.
St. Joseph’s Crisis Outreach and Support Team hotline, or COAST, can be reached 24 hours a day at 905.972.8338.