Celebrity suicides have a way of encouraging us to regurgitate tired, inaccurate narratives about mental illness, depression and what to do about it. The suicide rate, as of 2016, has surged to the highest it’s been in nearly 30 years, with an increase in every age group except the elderly. One person every 13 minutes dies by suicide in the United States; Americans are far more likely to kill themselves than each other. It’s estimated that every suicide emotionally wounds ten other people and costs about $1 million in medical expenses and lost wages. This amounts to a public health crisis, which we have mobilized to tackle before when faced with the AIDS epidemic and the scourge of breast cancer. We can — and must — do the same for the suicide crisis.
As Noel Hunter said, “When 45,000 people a year would rather die than live in this world any longer, it might behoove us all to consider what is happening in the world to cause this.” What is happening in the world. One of the main stories we repeat to ourselves is that mental illness causes suicide. We perpetuate this idea that people who take their own lives are sick, perhaps as an unconscious way of attempting to avoid feelings of guilt or regret about what we could have done or who we could have been for the people we’re losing to this public health crisis. It’s almost like neuroscience hasn’t shown us how harmful isolation is for human beings. We then turn right around and express shock that Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, etc., were feeling so awful — “they were always so happy” say the people “closest” to them.
Of course they were “always happy.” We live in a culture of mandated positivity and compulsory happiness, which somehow remains untouched by the current political, social, ecological and economic realities of the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that unflinching optimism in the face of the dire perils of humanity is delusional denialism. It doesn’t seem to matter that we live in a world where injustice is systematically rewarded and the greed of a few is lethal for many; a world in which where you were born determines more about the rest of your life than any amount of perseverance or hard work (I can anticipate the haters now, so I’ll just note that, if meritocracy were real — that is, if hard work was recognized and compensated proportionally — the wealthiest people in the world would be women in sub-Saharan Africa who haul water for their families eight hours a day). Not to mention the recent geopolitical reminder that the only planet known to support life could be obliterated at any moment because of the unchecked egos of a few too-powerful men even as its beauty and built-in life-promoting powers are being methodically and thoroughly dismantled as a matter of “civilization’s” course. No, if you’re distressed, it must either be your bad attitude (which is a choice) or your broken brain (which is not a choice); god forbid we look anywhere outside the self.
The recent glut of op-eds triggered by the high-profile suicides this month — all advising friends and family of loved ones struggling with depression to do things like “encourage them to get help,” “don’t try to fix it,” “be there for them,” etc., with the number to the National Suicide Hotline at the bottom — are, thus, an astounding example of collective cognitive dissonance. How is it that our media will run the same advice — different remixes of “be there for each other” and “encourage people to get help” — every time a famous person kills themselves, while simultaneously, in the name of “self-care,” perpetuating garbage guidance like “cut toxic people out of your life” or “distance yourself from negative people”? More importantly, how is this viable advice? How is it that we allow and even follow this counsel — proudly, without question? What gives anyone the right to label another human being toxic? How is it not utterly selfish to remove negative people from your life? People experiencing despair, hopelessness and unabating distress don’t want to add (even more) isolation to their pain, so they put on a smiley, happy mask, and strive for “strength of character” and whatever else our culture has labeled constant upbeatness, until they can’t take it anymore.
Whether or not calling that hotline would work for you (I’ve found those who answer the phone to be extremely condescending and unable to relate empathetically, myself), if you really care about people in so much pain that they’d rather die than live through one more day, you actually should be trying to fix it. Start with being the person your friend would call rather than directing them to a total stranger, an expert or someone they would have to pay to listen to them. Stop saying “you’re not alone” and start saying “I’m here with you.”
But it goes beyond that. This is an increasingly terrifying and painful world for an increasing number of people — in large part because of metastatic capitalism as I’ve discussed in the past. If psychotherapy is less effective for poor people, maybe poverty and runaway inequality, which are not incidental but direct results of the unbridled capitalism we have all accepted as part of “the way things are,” are the problems rather than the individual seeking therapy. Maybe it’s legitimately painful and despair-inducing to live poor in a world where the few self-appointed elites flaunt their wealth and power and show no concern for life that cannot enrich their empires. If you care about depression, organize an eviction blockade; stand up to the corporate giants willing to pollute our air, water, soil and food; learn who has political power in your community and relentlessly petition, picket, protest them until they practice justice.
And stop participating in spreading harmful, shaming conceptions of suicide. There are many; some of the ones that most weaken friends’ and loved ones’ ability to respond compassionately and effectively to someone experiencing suicidal thoughts (and that keep us as a society from responding to this crisis the way we’ve responded to cancer or AIDS) are that suicide is weak, selfish or cowardly.
People who end their own lives are dismissed as weak as if being weak is a bad thing. The combination of capitalism, individualism and the ruthlessly propagated conception of human beings as competitive by nature have demonized weakness and made it into a bogeyman rather than a fact about the human condition that, if embraced, could lead to healing relationships and more resilient communities, two bulwarks against suicide. Isolation — that is, the felt sense that you are alone and without meaningful connections or people who care about you — kills. Directing people toward professionals rather than learning how to have real, lasting friendships deepens isolation.
I would argue from my experience working at a crisis center that people who live with such dark thoughts are some of the strongest people I have ever met, but, even if suicide were weak, we need to ask what’s wrong with being weak. Who is telling us that being weak is categorically a failure or deserves criticism? A pervasive system that requires lifelong sacrifices of time, energy and resources of the masses in order to enrich an arbitrary few and would thus view emotions, preferences and struggles as optional, inconvenient and wasteful — that’s who.
But human beings are vulnerable creatures that depend on so many things outside themselves to survive, let alone flourish. We are born utterly helpless; it takes decades to get to adulthood, though we are never fully able to make it on our own even then; we grow old, and maybe helpless again; we die. Weakness is inherent in the human condition and owning that, not disparaging it or trying to avoid it, is where true power is.
The claim that suicide is selfish is the height of hypocrisy in a society that advises people that they can’t live for others, they “should only live for themselves,” and demands its members provide for all of their needs, including the basic human need for connection, alone. As I just discussed, weakness is a central feature of the human condition, which is why we need each other. We are each saddled with our own unique limits that we cannot overcome by ourselves. Our society’s demand that every person take care of every need they have on their own, reinforced by its selective worship of experts (we feel free to question climate scientists while simultaneously passing off our distraught friends to “professionals”), runs against the grain of human nature. But, in a culture that has no safe outlet for the pain our social world inflicts on us, that shames people for expressing loneliness, the shock that so often accompanies suicide loss is the confusing part for me, not the skyrocketing rates of suicide in this country.
Furthermore, why is it that we only care about people’s “failure to consider others beside themselves” when they’ve taken their own lives while it’s otherwise acceptable — aggressively promoted, even — to “look out for number one” at all costs? We saturate our social environment with incentives for self-focus. We reinforce the idea that, to win, you must put yourself first, keep relationships that benefit you and throw away those that don’t. We are told in so many different ways that, as Anthony Robbins said, “success is doing what you want when you want with whoever you want,” and we can find no countervailing force that would question that and call it for what it is: sociopathy. Virtues like kindness, empathy and integrity are either tokenized for a few likes on Facebook, framed as unattainable for all but a few ‘saints’ like Mother Teresa or viewed with suspicion: we question the motives of sincere, generous people and wonder what they must want from us. We press people from the earliest years of their lives to care only about themselves, to use whatever means necessary, including other people, to get what they want out of life, and then, to the people we’ve alienated and isolated to the point of life-ending despair because of their despair (which we’ve been instructed to construe as “negative” or “toxic”) we heap accusations of not caring about others. If suicide were selfish, would it be any wonder why?
If suicide were cowardly, why isn’t the response to ask what the fear is? Given both the current state of the world and the overall precariousness of life in general, is fear actually an inappropriate response? To accuse someone of being afraid as if it’s a character flaw is to seriously misunderstand the function of human emotions. In a culture that distorts emotions as much as ours does, it’s not surprising that so many people would take fear to mean weakness, but we’ve already talked about what weakness really is. Fear, then, is actually the recognition of those limits and how little each of us can really control in life. Fear is an appropriate response to the current state of the world. Fear is a sign that you’re paying attention and you have a healthy view of how small your personal power is relative to how large and looming the problems we aren’t even facing are. Climate change, artificial intelligence, permanent totalitarianism — these are legitimately mortifying threats; claiming otherwise is worse than denialism. It’s emotional abuse.
Our culture is exceedingly emotionally abusive. That it would find it acceptable to dismiss the pain driving suicidal ideation as weak, selfish or cowardly and continue to refuse to engage in self-reflection is but one piece of evidence of that. To think of suicide as weak, selfish or cowardly is to blame the person for being unable to continue to live in an environment that is more and more unsuitable for life. That’s gaslighting. Why are we more comfortable perpetuating a culture that seems to cheer on the extinguishing of more and more of its members as it denies any responsibility for their deaths than we are working toward creating something human beings can actually thrive in? What have we become?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.