The rash of celebrity deaths by suicide in the past few years suggests another sad, preventable cultural trend is on the rise. I have to confess, the shock upon first learning of these tragic events quickly inflames the reactions of my coldly rational ego. Before I know it, my thoughts are beset by its reflexive commentary, which most often thinks something of the nature, “How can someone so rich, successful, and lucky to enjoy such adulation be so unhappy as to take their lives?”
I am aware how this cruelly minimizes the tragic loss of human life these stories depict; how it is partly rooted in resentment and lacks compassion. Thankfully, my heart intervenes to halt the ego’s attempt at detachment, which reinforces the cultural strain of insensitivity and indifference to the fate of others; one I strongly believe plays a role in some of these deaths. With a more humane, empathetic spirit the hope is wisdom can be gained from these atrocities, but more importantly, that others will listen and hear the realities about mental illness we too often ignore.
In that vein, my mind is unwilling to suspend its disbelief toward post-mortem reports by the media, who circle the dead like scavengers, tripping over themselves for answers to the question of ‘Why?’ The fullest truth will remain forever unknown; it is buried with the bodies of those who took their lives. And yet our culture remains unwilling to accept the simple truths that, were we willing to heed them, might make these stories a little less commonplace. So we satisfy ourselves with the media’s incomplete, superficial composite sketch of the suspect in these deaths, which barely resembles the real perpetrator; one who is revealed in part by holding a mirror up to our society.
Since we are unwilling to do that, the discussion in the social media frenzy follwing these deaths is based on the caricatures – substance abuse, money problems, marital problems, legal problems. The focus is on the salacious details of the celebrity’s secret life uncovered rather than the mental illness that lurks beneath the series of tragic events preceding their untimely death. These aren’t stories just about celebrities with secrets, they are stories about human beings who suffer profoundly, despite presumably having all the resources to shield them from the worst of life’s depredations.
There are legions, myself included, who have suffered unbearable sadness; who constantly have to fend off surges of spirit-crushing depression and anxiety. It is frightening to consider death by suicide, overdose, or other self-inflicted dangers is where it might lead. The loss of life in these cases may be preventable, if only we changed the way we talk about and treat mental illness; the way we approach addictions, criminality, and other self-sabotaging behaviours symptomatic of underlying mental illness in our society. Because we criminalize and launch “wars” on drugs, people with addictions are left to hide in the shadows and many die because they were made to go it alone.
The over-wrought, pointless outpouring of misguided speculation in response to celebrity death by suicide is understandable. The tragic news immediately stirs the impulse to cling to simplistic rationales for what seems unbelievable to our imagination. This is one way we distance ourselves from the fear and angst we harbour about the inescapable torments of the human condition. For us regular folks, it is a frightening prospect to think a rich celebrity succumbed to their demons. What does that say about our chances? It may be cold comfort to believe a celebrity’s problems were so enormous they, rather than their struggle with mental illness, precipitated their death. Deep down we all know this idea is total nonsense, but we cling to it anyhow. It’s a denial that makes it more difficult for those who walk the same tenuous line between survival and death that ultimately claimed the celebrity’s life.
If anything, the fact even a celebrity was cut down by mental illness should invigorate our sense of urgency in understanding what is needed to prevent more needless deaths. None of us is immune to the ravages of mental illness; and these tragic events are the foil to cultural ideas about success and wealth adding up to happiness and insulation from such a terrifying disease. When a celebrity dies by suicide, it is an affront to all the childish, hollow ideas about success and happiness. We should use these cases to put a stop to our society’s habit of doubling-down in its denials or attempts to suppress the truth about the prevalence and reach of mental illness.
It is dangerous to advance or imply ill-conceived notions about why it is shocking that celebrities were mentally ill or why their suicide is “selfish” given the existence of children, “adoring fans”, or “unparalleled success” in news and other social media. Why? Because people who are surviving with mental illness are tuning in; they are consuming the shame-inducing discourse. To deny the humanity of the celebrity who succumbed is to deny the humanity of the anonymous who struggle day by day to survive and are not out of harm’s way. For anyone surviving with mental illness, such narratives are counter-productive and downright harmful. When mental illness claims another life, the last thing a survivor needs to hear is assertions about how such illnesses are inexplicable for those with a “charmed life.” It is such an ugly, heartless presumption to suggest a person grappling with depression each day has a “charmed” life.
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 millions who live with untreated mental illness, who are afraid to reach out for help because of stigma, and who struggle to eke out a semblance of a fruitful existence every day. I am grief-stricken at the thought it was impossible for those who ultimately succumbed to have seen another way to get them to the next day and the one after that; that they could not imagine a path to on-going survival.
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 encompass. But it does not have to be a lonely struggle. If you are a survivor, it is important you realize there are others just like you. More than you know. People such as myself, for example. I am alive because I finally said “enough is enough, I have to heal” If you find the next day seems too difficult to face, extend your hands to those you love and trust, who express genuine concern for your well-being. A network of fellow-travellers will help you see a different way to the future; one forged on your terms, one that does not so readily invite shame and cause despair.
There are infinite ways of living, even with what seems like debilitating mental illness. It can be difficult to fathom because we are so ensnared by the omnipresent reach of a society that deliberately denies the realities about the harshness and complexity of human existence. Instead of acknowledging and accommodating the unforeseen harm caused by society’s so-called “invisible hand” we plunder ahead according to the plan, blind to the inhumane, destructive, and exploitative practices that are more entrenched as we progress. For those who struggle to find a place within the narrow confines of society’s strictures, it can seem as though opting out with death is the only feasible option when everything else has failed.
For those struggling with mental illness, it might seem their self-imposed lethal attrition is encouraged by a society that violently repudiates whatever is needed to support their survival. By failing to acknowledge and address the many truths before our eyes, our societies are complicit in a kind of systemic persecution, one rooted in indifference to the needs of those at risk of death by suicide; those with addictions, whose lives are riddled with violence, sexual and physical abuse, and exploitation. It is unacceptable to the extreme because of how many lives are marginalized by our collective unwillingness to address these issues despite the incredible, inconceivable hardships they invite upon the lives of millions of fellow human beings.
I say this not to increase the despair among those who suffer, but to affirm feelings of alienation and angst so many are feeling about things being terribly wrong in our societies. It is true, things are not right, but those who must also endure these realities and survive with their mental illness dragging them down are not what is wrong. An increase in death by suicide says as much about our societies as it does about the scale of mental illness that fills the rosters of the deceased.
Whatever those who feel the sting of reality more acutely than others do to cope is their best effort to respond in the circumstances. Sometimes this leads to addictions, other times it leads to self-sabotaging behaviours. It can be a mess. There should be no shame in doing what is needed to survive, and yet our society sees fit to criminalize those struggling with drug addiction by throwing them in prison. It compounds the ruinous impact of mental illness in their lives which means the law is just another noose around the necks of those who are reeling.
I would suggest there is another side to the voices that torment certain souls for failing to live up to society’s ideal. They are also the beacons of a deep inner wisdom; one that knows the system we force ourselves to fit every day, despite who we are, is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps that is the voice we who struggle to keep our heads above water need to hear; the one telling us there is a different way if we could just stop looking for love in all the wrong places. For those brought to the crossroads of life and death by despair, there is another way besides death. There is a way to opt out without dying but it involves looking for answers deep within ourselves; a path through the smoke that is fraught with fear. This is why supports are needed.
This is not easy to swallow for a person in the throes of despair, but just one act of faith can be the difference between life and death. We who are legion are not the problem; we are the long-ignored symptom of a malaise that ails our culture and needs to be addressed. The lone voices of those who despair may be weak and desperate, but they can be made into a force for change if we have the courage to reject society’s denial of our stories with its stigmas and bullshit laws, and stand up to be counted.
Alone, we end up digging the graves society sees fit to throw us in when death by suicide has done their dirty work. Together we can become the sledgehammer to knock down the walls our withered bodies are propped up against to face the firing squad for the crime of trying to survive amidst a creed so intent on denying the endless suffering of human existence; that is indifferent to the countless indignities it inflicts upon those with mental illness.
Together, we can survive outside the margins. But that survival depends on the voices we heed in times of darkness; those of the battered spirits deep within us still fighting to survive, or the voices of society’s collective ego that infiltrate our mind and hatches a plot to end our lives.
Listen to the fighting spirits. Their voices may be quieted by despair but they are there begging you to summon others who can help you get to the next day. It is telling you you are not alone; that you can survive.