Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld from me
I realize and I can see
That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
-Johnny Mandel & Mike Altman-
It isn’t, though. It’s not painless for anyone. Even if the method a person chooses to take their own life causes no pain in the moment, the moments leading up to the decision are filled with pain. The loss of a future, of a loved one, a friend, a mentor, an icon – none of that is painless.
Today the world lost, along with 122 others, Kate Spade.
Kate Valentine (formerly, professionally, and better-known as Kate Spade) was an American fashion designer and businesswoman most famous for her line of accessories, namely handbags, though her designs included everything from wallpaper to baby gear.
Now, I’m not a fashion person. I cannot fathom spending a mortgage payment on shoes or a purse or a pair of sunglasses. I know (some) designers only by name and occasionally pictures, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between Gucci and Guess. I’d heard of Kate Spade, but I know nothing about her work beyond “fashion designer.”
What I do know is that she was a mother, a wife, and an entrepreneur. She was a great many things to many people. She was a human being.
And now she’s gone. Another victim of mental illness lost to her demons. Whatever pain she was dealing with was too much for her, and now her friends and family are faced with the pain of her loss.
I don’t know what daily life was like for Kate Spade. I don’t know if her mind was a constant barrage of voices convincing her that she was worthless, if her past experiences and traumas combined with the general everyday stress of her life became too much to bear. I don’t know if she had depression, or anxiety, or was bipolar.
I know that she was suffering from mental illness. I know a lot of the world is talking about mental illness today, on social media, on the news, in their own homes. As sure as I am of that fact, I am also sure that in a few days it will become just another topic that moves to the backburner.
An occasionally trending hashtag that people use to pander to their followers to appear sympathetic and build their numbers.
A scapegoat for violence, murder, mass shootings.
A thing that 18.1% of us continue to experience, another percentage continue to speak out about, and the majority of the world pretends is either all in our heads or (apparently) not that big a deal until the next terrible thing happens that shoves it back into the limelight.
A lot of the public’s response to Kate Spade’s death shows, very clearly, that we as a society have no idea how to talk about mental illness.
Wow. No way. Really?
Depressed people can be happy. I’m happy a lot of the time. Being depressed doesn’t mean you sit in the dark 24 hours a day crying.
Money actually goes a long way in reducing stress, which is a huge trigger for depression. Stress is a huge trigger for me, and worrying about bills, paying for groceries, replacing a tire when we’re already struggling? Big stressors. But, yes, people can be depressed IN SPITE of being rich.
Also, the number of people saying “depression doesn’t discriminate” as though it’s some brilliantly deep concept they just came up with? Please stop. Stop talking about depression as though it’s something that happens to people. It’s not unemployment, or a house fire, or winning the shitty lottery.
And quite frankly, these little splurts where people suddenly speak out about mental illness because their favorite celebrity came forward about their depression/anxiety (which are often lumped together but are, in fact, two very different things) or had a breakdown, or was a victim of suicide are not helping in a big picture sense.
She gets it.
This is not to say that the little splurts aren’t helpful at all. Obviously I would prefer people act like they care about mental illness sometimes rather than never. But it would be so much more beneficial – to everyone – if it was part of the ongoing, overall public health discussion.
If, for instance, we treated our mental health the same way we do our physical health – which would make sense, since our brains are…you know…part of our bodies – maybe the 50% of those suffering from mental illness who remain untreated would get the help they need. Maybe if mental illness was taken seriously and psychiatrists weren’t still portrayed as incompetent, evil, predatory, etc, people would feel more confident about seeking help.
I can’t remember a single portrayal of a mental health professional in movies, growing up, that left me feeling like it was a worthwhile profession. Public perception of psychiatrists are that they are less trustworthy than medical doctors, in spite of the fact that they are medical doctors. A lot of this, I believe, has to do with the general lack of understanding of mental health disorders, but media portrayal factors in. Even current medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy treat psychiatry like it’s a joke, and that’s significant.
(This isn’t to say all media portrayals are harmful or inaccurate. If you haven’t read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, you should. He does a masterful job of showing what living with mental illness is like – and while Aza’s demons aren’t like my demons aren’t like his demons aren’t like your neighbor’s demons aren’t like your best friend’s demons, the portrayal of their constant, pervasive presence is spot on.)
Remember that thing I talked about in my blog about selfie-shaming? Cultivation theory? Let’s recap:
“It’s no secret that our concept of beauty is shaped almost entirely by the media we consume. It’s called cultivation theory, and it can be applied to all sources of media in the modern age even though it was initially developed in regards to television consumption. Media presents a distorted version of social reality (beauty), and the more media we consume, the more our perception of reality is influenced by it.”
Cultivation theory doesn’t just apply to our perceptions of self. It applies to our perception of reality. If the only portrayals of mental illness and the professionals who help treat mental illness are inaccurate, harmful, or parodied, our perception of those problems and the people who can HELP US are going to reflect that.
It’s incredibly irresponsible in the year two thousand eighteen, knowing what we DO know about mental illness and how important it is to get treatment, that these inaccurate portrayals continue to be so pervasive.
13 Reasons Why got a lot of backlash for how mental illness and suicide were portrayed, with many saying it glamorized suicide. I’ve watched season one a few times, and I’m gearing myself up to watch season two. Here’s my take on it, as someone who suffers from depression – with the caveat that it doesn’t affect everyone the same way:
I think, by and large, the intent of the writer(s) was pure. Our actions, how we treat people, all of it has consequences. I don’t believe the show glamorizes or glorifies suicide. It is very, very clear throughout the show that Hannah’s suicide devastated everyone in her life, and I think that they showed her actually cutting her own wrists made it a very real action instead of a theoretical thing she did that everyone just talks about. It made it concrete, final. It showed that she felt actual, physical pain. It also shows, as you listen to the tapes, that while she did want those who hurt her to be aware of their actions and to know that she blamed them, her suicide was her choice and she made it because she couldn’t face the pain she was feeling every day.
It showed that everything that happened to her – ranging from normal, stupid, high school bullshit to the absolutely devastating trauma of rape – compounded until it was simply too much for her to bear. While I do think her decision to punish the people who hurt her was mostly cruel, and most of them didn’t really deserve it (see above re: high school bullshit), and it was cruel to leave her parents without any idea of what she was going through, THE most important takeaway from this show is that depression is a serious illness, and the warning signs aren’t always obvious, but it is incredibly important that the people we choose to include in our lives know that they aren’t alone, that they matter, that they are loved, and that we are there for them.
That she chose to end her life was a tragedy, but it was because she felt she had no other choice.
The show’s greatest flaw, in my opinion, was that it did not do enough to further the discussion of mental illness inasmuch as it put the burden on others to prevent suicide, and it also doesn’t actively encourage those suffering from mental illness to reach out. Everyone Hannah tried to reach out to let her down.
Had Hannah reached out to her parents, to a counselor, sooner, she might have gotten the professional help she needed.
What if our mental health was treated the way our physical health is? With regular checkups, insurance coverage, sick leave, workplace accommodations? What if we were encouraged to start talking to licensed mental health care professionals as early as grade school?
Right now, affordable mental health care is a pipe dream. A lot of insurance plans don’t cover therapy at all, and those that do cover it have a limit before you start having to pay for your sanity out of your own pocket. And not all therapists are going to be a good match for everyone, so by the time you find a therapist who you feel comfortable and confident talking to, you might already have reached your limit of covered visits.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I can’t afford out-of-pocket therapy.
Mental illness is not just something you get over by thinking happy thoughts or focusing on other things. It shouldn’t be treated as a trending topic. It needs to be discussed openly, seriously, candidly, regularly. It is just as important as physical health.
Suicide claims the lives of 45,000 Americans every year. 123 people, on average, every day, die from suicide. It’s the tenth most common cause of death in our country, and we continue to act as though treatment for mental illness is a secondary issue.
While it is absolutely devastating that a celebrity lost her life to suicide today, it is important to remember that 122 other people did also. And another 123 will tomorrow, and the next day, until the stigma surrounding mental illness is gone and treatment is affordable and widely available.
So what can you do?
*First and foremost, understand that you have no idea what another person might be going through. That a person who looks and acts and seems perfectly happy and normal on the surface might be battling mental illness. Statistically is battling mental illness. Choose to be kind to the people in your life, on the street, in the grocery store, because you never know what they’re going through.
*Talk to your friends and family. Ask how they’re feeling, if there’s anything they need to talk about. Encourage them. Praise them. Let them know you care. And if what they’re going through is too much for you to handle, help them get help.
*Lobby for mental health coverage. I know our government is a train wreck right now and corporate money is essentially controlling every aspect of our lives, but the only people who can affect policy are the collective asshats we vote for, and we need to at least try to get them to care about us.
*Learn about mental illness. At least get a good overview from good sources (I’ve linked a lot of them here). Understand the statistics. Read real-life stories from those who suffer from it. I’ve written about my own struggle many times.
*Help combat harmful media portrayals. Our words matter a lot more these days, thanks to social media, and it’s incredibly important that what we share is accurate.
*Get help. If you’re suffering from mental illness, reach out. There are free resources available if you can’t afford treatment. If you don’t know where to look, ask. Someone will help guide you.
And please, if you are thinking about harming yourself, stop and call this number: