Trigger Warning: this post may contain content that can trigger a shift in mood, comfort, or mental status. Proceed at your own risk.
There has been a lot of media coverage of the suicides of two celebrities last week: Kate Spade on Tuesday and Anthony Bourdain on Friday.
Other than being familiar with the names, I know very little of either of them. I still find myself shaken and feeling terrible for them and their loved ones, though. It is, unfortunately, a familiar feeling. Many times a year, the loss of someone famous – be they wealthy/popular/creative/loved/loathed – makes the news, and, in too many cases, it turns out that they took their own life.
It bothers me in so many different ways. Part of it is how it plays out in the media. There’s always the initial shock and statements of grief. Then, invariably, the questions and positing begin. Some will wonder how anyone so wealthy or famous could possibly turn to suicide. Others will attempt to analyze and explain the behaviour. Still others will shake their heads and turn away in disgust, calling the deceased “weak”, “cowards”, “selfish”, or other misinformed pejoratives.
It embarrasses me to admit it, but I used to be in the latter group. I used to think that anybody could get through anything if they just put their head down, worked hard, and did what they had to do. Mental illness was synonymous with not working hard enough. If someone couldn’t do the work, they were either lazy or weak, and suicide was taking the easy way out. I thought therapy was a scam and psychiatric drugs did nothing but turn people into zombies. My opinions were formed by too many crappy movies and old books, and a casual disregard for the public speakers who came into my school and the posters and pamphlets in my doctor’s office or on the school counsellor’s desk.
I was wrong. Really, really wrong. I wish I could go back in time and slap some sense into my arrogant younger self and apologize to the people I hurt along the way. Knowing what I know now, I can see that, even at a young age, I was experiencing symptoms of mental illness. Everything from math to driving to writing to forcing myself to stay awake on plane and bus trips just in case something happened, starting when I was around four or five years old. I really wish I could go back and change some things.
Unfortunately, I can’t, and I will feel guilty and embarrassed about that for the rest of my life.
What I can do, though, is talk about how I was wrong.
Suicide is NOT cowardice
Nobody thinks that killing themselves is a quick and easy way to fix something that’s bothering them. People who consider suicide are ill with something they can’t see or feel, but is as real as a broken bone or tumour. They are miserable, feel they have nothing, and genuinely believe that the world would be a better place off without them. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow – just the slow, inexorable grinding of the intolerable NOW. Suicide is a cry from someone in horrendous distress – a flawed, desperate attempt at a solution to what feels like an intractable problem.
Suicide is NOT selfishness
I have been hospitalized four times over the last two years because I was in imminent danger of hurting myself. Not once did I think, “it sure will be nice when I don’t have to worry about upsetting J anymore,” or, “now I don’t need to worry about missing my nephews as they grow up”. All I could think about was how much stress and misery I was inflicting on all the people I care about and how much better it would be for them if I was no longer around. I also felt horrible for how much of the therapists’, doctors’, and nurses’ time I was taking; I was certain that they were wasting their time on me and would be better off using that time on other patients. I didn’t want anything – I just wanted to go away. I figured that people would be upset, but it would be like tearing off a band-aid – painful for a very short time but better in the long run.
Nobody – not even the most stressed-out family member or most overworked nurse – agreed that they thought the world would be better off without me. I also know several people who lost family or friends to suicide over the years and their lives were never the same – they still mourn their loss and question what they could’ve done differently to prevent it.
Suicide is NOT a joke
You make me want to kill myself!! – Howard Wolowitz (The Big Bang Theory)
The next person that offers me charity or pity will be mentioned – by name – in my suicide note. – Jeff Winger (Community)
Everybody has joked about killing themselves. It may have been a lighthearted moment, friends joking around with friends. Maybe someone got startled, or just discovered how long the chore list is. It may have been in a serious situation, like after failing an important test, or a teenager waiting for an angry parent to pick them up from the police station. Books, television, and movies are filled with characters mentioning suicide for comedic effect.
If you find yourself talking or thinking about suicide, stop for a moment and consider the context. Are you frightened? Are you depressed? Do you feel desperate? Do you feel alone? Do you agree with the sentiment? If you feel negative emotions (or a lack of emotion) while thinking about suicide, talk to someone and get help. Go to the nearest emergency room. Call a Crisis Line. Talk to your doctor. Talk to your therapist. Talk to your favourite teacher. Talk to your parents. Talk to someone and get help. If you don’t think the person you talked to understood or believed what you were saying, talk to someone else.
You deserve to get the help you need. You are worth it. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.
Another reason that the suicide of a celebrity bothers me so much is that, for every news headline or front page story about a famous person who killed themself, there are thousands of other people who aren’t known the world over who ended their own life. We collectively mourn the rock star, the football player, the physicist… but what about those who don’t have their daily activities followed by legions of fans? The nurse? The teacher? The electrician? The lady at the paint counter? The neighbour? The artist? The friend? Family?
On average, there are 123 suicides in the United States per day, or 13.42 suicides per 100,000 people.1
In 2009, there were 3,890 suicides in Canada, or 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people.2
In 2016, there were 5,965 suicides in the UK, or 10.4 suicides per 100,000 people.3
I am not implying that we should not mourn celebrities – far from it. We do, however, need to remember that, just as the suicide of a celebrity shocks and saddens us, there are hundreds or thousands of others who are stunned every day at the suicide of a family member, close friend, coworker, or someone they knew in passing.
Mental illness is the primary cause of suicide.2 The US National Institute of Mental Health says that “Mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness (44.7 million in 2016).”4. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that “In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.”5, while, “In 2007 nearly one person in four (23.0 per cent) in England had at least one psychiatric disorder and 7.2 per cent had two or more disorders”6.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It affects people regardless of gender, orientation, age, race, wealth, appearance, career, success, location, family… anything. There is no certain way to prevent it, nor any definite way to cause it. Anyone can experience mental illness at any time in their lives. It can be mild or life-altering, temporary or lifelong.
It is nothing to be ashamed of.
There has been considerable progress in treating mental illness, both by new and evolving therapies as well as new medications and a better understanding of older ones.
The public opinion and awareness of mental illness and suicide is changing. More people than ever see mental illness as something that can (and should) be treated – like a cyst that must be removed or a bone that must be set. Fewer people see it as weakness or as a flaw in a person’s character or personality. This is great news, but more must be done. Nobody should feel embarrassed to talk to someone about their mental health, and everybody should have easy access to help.
Whether you’re a celebrity or not.
Please – if you are contemplating suicide or otherwise hurting yourself or someone else, please contact your local crisis line or go to your nearest emergency room. You can find some contact numbers on the resources page.
THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO CARE ABOUT YOU AND WANT TO HELP. PLEASE, PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO REACH OUT.
YOU ARE WORTH IT.