The sad news of two celebrity suicides in one week has sent ripples through our collective consciousness.
I don’t normally write on things in the media but a friend thought it might help so here are my two cents.
I noticed two types of reactions to the tragic news: curiosity bordering on voyeurism over the details of the two lives lost; and existential self-projection in the form of an anxious questioning of what it all means for the rest of us.
Having worked with patients with mental illness as a doctor as well as worked on national mental health statistics and policy, I learned two things about mental illness: 1) it’s common; 2) it’s misunderstood.
I blanked the moment I found out that one of my close high school friends died by suicide; and I have vivid memories of friends and acquaintances taking time off and needing to withdraw from societal functioning when it all became too much.
Through providing the tools and strategies of Transformational Coaching, I aim to help people find their right path and build a balanced life, and try to prevent the stress of being in the wrong job and life. I’ve coached a few clients through to the other side of breakdowns and burnout (which always lead to a better place, eventually) and advocate that prevention is better than cure. But is our understanding of mental illness and the meaning we project onto celebrity suicides adequate?
I believe our misunderstanding about celebrity suicide is captured in two questions:
Why did they do this? (explicit question)
This one’s underpinned by a whiff of materialism i.e. they had everything (fame, wealth, etc) so what’s the problem? There’s also a level of delusion that the persona people present is real i.e. they looked happy/normal/content.
How could they do this? (implicit question)
Here, there’s a moral judgement implying some kind of personal responsibility on the part of the celebrity and a betrayal of our expectations of them. There’s also an assumption that they used their free will and weren’t victim of a disease that’s no fault of their own.
The second question reflects the more insidious misunderstanding. No one would ascribe personal responsibility to someone if they died of a stroke, heart attack or autoimmune disease, rather than a mental illness, even if they didn’t have perfectly healthy diets or exercise levels.
With celebrity suicides, we conflate the person with the mental illness. We assume we understand the celebrity and even identify with them (the false familiarity of celebrities).
On some level, we worry that their suicide increases our own odds of it.
This is statistically true…
A healthier reaction might be to pause and reconnect with a more sober version of reality; to use the moment for growth and maturation.
So what does it mean if an apparently successful celebrity dies by suicide?
It means nothing. Just like it doesn’t mean anything if someone you know dies of a heart attack or stroke.
We already know the social facts:
Yes, modernity is alienating.
Yes, the global recession and austerity measures have made social conditions more insecure and mental health services more precarious
Yes, access to opioids, guns and unfenced bridges, especially in rural areas makes a suicidal impulse easy to carry out.
We should all strive to create a better society for all.
But does someone else’s suicide increase your own chances? Only if you allow it. Only if misinterpreted. Only if you don’t face the reality of our human frailty and find the hopefulness in it.
The example of the Buddha is pertinent. His journey to inner-peace began with realising that death, illness and aging were facts of life; and that a maturing, sobering process of awakening to reality, beyond the gilded cages we earnestly build for ourselves, could help us reconcile with the facts of life, as well as protect us from our own delusions about the nature of success and happiness.
Could success mean being connected to the reality of the moment; relating directly to what’s going on around you and living from there rather than through projections about the future or stories from the past?
Or is it about connecting to the real person next to you, not your image of them or even the image they have of themselves…seeing into the deeper nature of reality and acting with wisdom and compassion?
An insight on mental illness that has stuck with me was from someone with recurrent clinical depression saying they wished that people wouldn’t brush over it, minimising the fact or reacting by trying to tell them how to fix it; but would simply pause and share a moment of genuine, sober empathy.
We’re all in the same boat and going to the same place. So a kind gesture or genuine smile might have just as great, if not greater, a return on the effort invested as a national prevention policy.
So next time the sad news of a celebrity suicide is plastered all over the news or reaches you through a casual conversation at work or over a Sunday brunch, rather than go with the media sensationalisation of it, might it be more wholesome to feel the genuine sadness and vulnerability it evokes, reconnect with what’s real and share a moment of true human connection and compassion?
For a different take on relating to our mental wellbeing, watch the video.
Have a great week,
14th of June at 7pm: The Leaders Circle: Transformational Communication.
26th of June: Managing care for patients with multimorbidities. National Institute of Health and Care Excellence Annual Conference 2018
6th July: Birthing babies, birthing your dreams: a parent’s power to create the right life and career. PLUSbaby (physicians returning to work after parent leave). Register here: https://www.plusbabyseminars.com/book-here