How the culture of silence around suicide and mental health is killing us
I don’t recall where I came across a portrait of Kate Spade yesterday morning. There was no headline or descriptor but I had a feeling that she had killed herself.
There’s something about the photos selected for news articles about famous people who end their lives. They’re usually a portrait. A portrait of just them, by themselves. Alone.*
(Why not use a family photo or one in which we can see Kate Spade in a joyous time of her life? Just a thought.)
Mental Illness is Not Like Other Health Conditions – Not.
I’ve known of Kate Spade but don’t know much about her.
When I saw the photo of her, I thought,
She’s a celebrity and in front-page news…suicide, I bet.
People are born fighting to live, to thrive. Our will-to-live is in our DNA.
So, why would someone choose to end their life?!
That’s a big question and one that can’t be fully explained nor understood with words.
I’ve been fighting to manage depression and anxiety for over 25 years; in that time, I experienced a series of traumatic events, so I can tell you what it’s like to live with a mind illness (AKA mental health illness). I prefer to use the word “mind” vs. “mental” but I use them both.**
Having a ‘mind illness,’ no mater the diagnosis, makes you feel CRAZY.
Think about it, when you feel heart palpitations, you notice it, acknowledge it, you tell someone — they worry and make you go to a doctor, hopefully.
You break a bone. Everyone — whether or not they’ve broken a bone — can see that you have a broken bone and that breaking a bone fucking hurts.
Or, you acquire a cough that lasts for weeks. It’s your body telling you that something is up and you should probably tell someone and check it out (please!)
But (!) when
Flip through the enormous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and pick a diagnosis.
…your actions and words, e.g. sleeping a lot, eating a lot or very little, canceling plans all the time, yelling random things in public etc.
These are the parts of your mind illness experience that are detectable, tangible. These are what we call “symptoms.” These are the ones we can see.
But these kinds of symptoms don’t tend to elicit empathy or compassion from others.
People walk away.
They stop sending you invitations.
They are angry and annoyed with you for always being late and/or grumpy.
You get written up at work for ‘problem behavior and performance’ (true story for another time.)
You’re called any combination of “lazy,” “crazy,” “nuts”, “insane,” “immature,” “weird,” “overly dramatic,” “attention-seeking,” “unfocused,” “hopeless.”
These are the things people with mental illness tend to experience on the outside.
On the inside, inside our minds. That’s where the pain lies. Invisible to everyone else but yourself.
And your culture tells you to keep your invisible pain a secret.
Yeah. Carry it with you fully on your own shoulders. Don’t be a burden on others.
Ssssh. Keep a still tongue and hide your pain. No one is going to understand you, anyway.
Pretend to be OK and exhaust yourself more fully trying to act and appear “normal.”
While you’re at it, feel shameful and guilty about having a mental health condition.
Seriously, What is Wrong With Us?!
In an article in The Kansas City Star, Kate Spade’s sister shares some insight into Spade’s history of internal turmoil:
“Kate Spade’s older sister [Reta Saffo] told The Star on Tuesday that her famous designer sister suffered debilitating mental illness for the last three or four years and was self-medicating with alcohol.”
She shares how her sister was fixated on the news of Robin William’s suicide and speculates that her sister began planning to kill herself at that time.
Yet, in the next breathe, she says about Kate Spade’s suicide, “[it] was not unexpected by me.”
This seemingly conflicting response is a symptom of our inability to talk about mental health issues, including sharing our personal experiences with mind illness.
We’ve come a long way since ‘lunatic asylums,’ but we still ostracize and oppress “insane people.” We stigmatize mind illness through assumption, judgement and silence, and it’s reflected in our disappointingly inept mental healthcare system.
Is the Image of Being OK More Important to Us Than Our Own Lives?
From the same article, ““Spade seemed concerned how hospitalization might harm the image of the “happy-go-lucky” Kate Spade brand, [her sister] said.”
I’m here to tell you that emotions and moods aren’t black and white. You can be “happy-go-lucky” and live with depression; they’re not mutually exclusive.
I’m saddened — and pissed off, frankly — that people choose to end their lives because they’re worried about how the public will view them, how their friends and family will view them.
Our cultural stigma around mental health is so disgustingly powerful. Do we really value holding up the image of feeling OK over taking care of ourselves?
No. I don’t think so either. So, let’s do what we can to change the culture around mind wellness. Brain health. Mental health. Whatever you want to call it.
Sometimes it’s not enough to have a support system and resources. Kate Spade had a loving family who were attentive and caring of her mental illness. She also had the means to afford top-notch treatment.
“…in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.” — Kate Spade’s sister, Reta Saffo
Saffo went on to say, “Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves!”
I disagree. I think we can. But it’s going to entail saving people from our culture of judgment and prejudice against mental illness.
Enough of losing lives to the concern over public opinion. No more treating heart issues with worry and understanding, and treating mind illnesses with fear and alientation.
We can absolutely change the culture around mind wellness through compassion, curiosity and openness.
I have hope that we can support and save people like Kate Spade, who have been victims of an antiquated and out-of-touch societal and systemic stigma.
Kate Spade, thank you for bringing fun fashion, vibrant color and glittery sparkle to this world.
And thank you to the many individuals, groups and coalitions out there who are promoting or providing advocacy and support of mind wellness. And thank you to those who make yourselves vulnerable by sharing your mental illness stories. You are saving lives.
Are you experiencing thoughts of suicide?
Having suicidal feelings or thoughts is normal but they’re a frightening and a sign that you need care and support — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
Do you suspect someone may be suicidal?
Often, people make vague worrisome statements or gestures alluding to ending things.
Connect with them.
Ask if they want to kill themselves.
One question could save their life.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Find a list of suicide hotlines around the world here.
In the US, Canada and United Kingdom, you can text a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
(I volunteered with the Crisis Text Line and can vouch for their thorough counselors training and compassionate approach. These are people giving up their time to support strangers in need. Use them. They want you to!)
Originally posted on Medium.com.