It has been all too common of late to hear news that a celebrity has died by suicide. I have to confess, the shock upon first learning of these tragic events tends to elicit the reactions of my coldly rational ego. Before I know it, my consciousness is beset by the ego’s reflexive commentary, which is most unkind. It is one that says, “How can someone so rich, successful, and lucky to have enjoyed notoriety be so unhappy?”
I am aware how this cruelly minimizes the tragic loss of human life their story entails; how the comparison of regular lives to that of the celebrity is rooted in resentment and fear rather than in compassion. Thankfully, my heart arrives in short order to put a lid on this train of thought with a more humanistic, empathetic dose of wisdom.
Nonetheless, it is this thread of reason that colours much of the discussion in the social media frenzy that inevitably follows these deaths. Often the focus is more on the fact of the victim’s status as a celebrity than the illness that caused their untimely death; the two linked in absurd ways. These aren’t stories just about celebrities, not necessarily, but of human beings who suffered a crippling illness that claimed their lives.
There are legions, myself included, who have suffered immense sadness, have endured bouts of spirit-crushing depression. It is frightening to think that death by suicide is where it may one day lead. The loss of life in these cases is preventable, if only we changed the way we talk about, and treat, mental illness in our society.
It is understandable; in the face of such tragic news, the impulse to cling to ideas that attempt to explain and rationalize away these needless deaths is irresistible. On self-reflection, it strikes me as a way to distance oneself from fear and angst about how harrowing the human condition can be, especially when its ebbs-and-flows are intensified by mental illness.
None of us is immune, despite our collective effort to posit and reinforce ideas about how success equals happiness; a complete fiction many of us cling to despite the mass graves of successful people who died by their own hands. Nonetheless, it is a trope reinforced by our culture’s addiction to selfishness, which it repackages and markets as “individualism”. Our indifference to others as we champion ourselves keeps us occupied in mindless consumption; a delusional shield forged from the falsehood that a way out of the countless psychological assaults in the human experience can be easily purchased at the mall. Meanwhile, as none of us is looking out for the other, we are busy overlooking those dying right before our eyes.
That is to say, I don’t think any of us is any more or less vulnerable to this illness given the right circumstances. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to our childish, hollow ideas about happiness, and shines a revealing light on how stridently we deny and repress the realities of mental illness. It also shines a bright light on the true and lasting harshness of emotional pain and trauma, which for some never subsides.
In this respect the tragic death by suicide of Robin Williams is illustrative. Many fans and admirers were genuinely saddened at his death. Many more could not help but betray a profound fear at what it said about “happiness”, their comments expressing the sentiment “if he is vulnerable, what does that say about me?” That is it exactly.
This is why I stop that voice of resentment in its tracks, why we should no longer be so shocked that another human being has succumbed to the West’s silent killer simply because they were a celebrity. Celebrities are human just like you and I, no matter how hard we try to put them on a pedestal to satiate our psychological need for a panacea to human woe. Denial is unhealthy in the face of tragedies that warrant compassion, not just for those who have died, but for ourselves and others in our life who are struggling right now.
It is dangerous to plaster ill-conceived ideas about why celebrities shouldn’t be mentally ill, or why suicide is “selfish”, either on social media feeds or comment walls wherever news of these deaths is published. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are reading those threads. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive, but may yet still die by suicide. For anyone who has mental illness despite outward appearances of success, however shallow and feckless our society measures it, this is the last thing they need to hear. It is a refrain that surely risks causing more guilt or shame for their illness.
Our society already does a stellar job of shaming and stigmatizing those with mental illness, without also having the occasion of another death increasing their burden. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a person with the same illness needs to hear is assertions about how their illness is a figment of their imagination that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – exist, just because they are successful or have an ostensibly charmed life.
As a person with ADD, I know how hurtful it is to hear how every arm-chair, ignoramus shrink with a PhD from Twitter-Internet College believes the condition that has nearly ruined my life, that is at times the bane of my existence, is “a conspiracy invented by drug companies.” No, it is bloody well not and I know because I live my life despite it. It is a condition that afflicts my brain, and is manifest by dysregulating the balance and flow of certain neurotransmitters needed to propel functional thoughts and behaviours. In that way, my ADD shares a biological antecedent similar to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or other neuro-psychological conditions. Just because science does not yet know how or why, does not make it any less true.
To those who knew and loved any of the legions who have died by suicide, I am profoundly sorry for your loss. It is infinitely, metaphysically heart-breaking so many lives ended in one of the most tragic ways imaginable. My tears flow for the legions who live with untreated mental illness, struggling just to get by each and every day. I am grief-stricken at the thought it was impossible for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way; one that would have kept them alive.
For those with lived experience, mental illness is far more real than what our society’s catch-all solution for everything – an “attitude adjustment” – can remedy. It is a condition biologically hard-wired in the brain and afflicts rich and poor, famous and ignominious alike. It is not encompassed by the ignorant falsehoods our mindless culture perpetuates about its nature. Cover your eyes and ears to the foolish voices who say things to appease their own fear and shock about mental illness; whose well intentioned but clumsy bromides are more harmful than helpful.
Mental illness is not the fault of those afflicted, and it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are living with mental illness, extend your hands to those you love or trust, and search out ways to start the process of rewriting the distorted narratives that impede your ability to fashion a fruitful life. There are ways to function despite mental illness; to ensure you are a survivor.
Peace and love. You are not alone.