I woke up on the morning of June 8 to the television in the living room droning in the background about Anthony Bourdain, buzzing at low-volume. I turned up the television. The announcer reported on his death, details about Bourdain unresponsive in a hotel room in Paris while shooting an episode of Parts Unknown, one of my favorite travel/food shows. Earlier that week on June 5, it had been Kate Spade.
These prominent deaths by suicide sent the media into a myopic mental health frenzy. Similar to how the media jumps into pro-gun-control activism upon mass shootings and then quickly forgets to follow through, the media threw itself into mental health activism and suicide awareness, tossing that suicide hotline (1-800-273-8255) into every newscast covering Bourdain and Spade’s deaths.
The media took their deaths, turned them into news stories that verged on sensationalism, and did not present effective calls to action for the general public. Psychologists and researchers interviewed by newscasters talked about increasing suicide rates, depression, and anxiety. In terms of mental illnesses, depression and anxiety are the most palatable, the most normative—the media is somewhat comfortable with the discussion of depression and anxiety, especially in relation to high-profile deaths by suicide.
I sat watching the broadcast, wondering where the conversation was about bipolar, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and other majorly stigmatized mental illnesses that are deemed “too crazy” for mainstream media to interrogate. 10% of people with borderline personality disorder die from suicide, up to 15% of people with schizophrenia die from suicide (approximately 60% of them attempt at least one time in their life), and people with bipolar attempt suicide at two times the rate of people with depression—where is the media coverage?
Mentally ill people in the media are generally White, middle to upper class, and not exhibiting comorbidity of mental illnesses or “scary” symptoms like psychosis, hallucinations, drug or alcohol dependency/addiction, aggression, paranoia, or depersonalization. Anxiety and depression lead mental illness representation in the media; they’re deemed less “crazy,” less “abnormal,” and less “scary.” If the mental illness does not fit the (recently) socially accepted mentally ill narrative, it’s excluded, marginalized further, not talked about, and not addressed.
Without media coverage of mental health issues beyond anxiety and depression, the public feels no sense of urgency, no fire under anyone’s ass, to actually help people struggling with mental illness. The public forgets about people of color, women, queer people, and poor people.
While people share that hotline with the most positive of intentions, there are infinite other things to do to prevent suicide that are more effective than sharing a hotline. Mental health activism is a constant effort and a challenge; it’s also a learning process, especially for allies (neurotypicals), and even people who are mentally ill but do not have other marginalized aspects of identity (race, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, etc.).
Again, the hotline exists with positive intentions, but there is only so much it can do. I have had friends call the hotline in the morning and no one picks up the call. Also, I’ve had friends call the hotline and the trained operator said that there is not much they can do unless the person in question is actually about to hurt themselves; in that case, they call the police—which could actually be traumatizing or even endanger a mentally ill person’s wellbeing (especially if they are a person of color struggling with mental illness). When every aspect of life feels overwhelming for a person with mental illness (even basic things, like getting out of bed, showering, eating, etc.), the last thing they are going to do is call a hotline in which they have to communicate their most vulnerable feelings with a stranger at perhaps the darkest moment of their life. Actual symptoms of depression (or a depressive episode) include lack of motivation, extreme exhaustion, fatigue, and changes in sleeping patterns. If a person experiences these symptoms (which they probably do), they’re even less likely to perform the emotional labor of calling this hotline.
So now what?
We have to start talking. We have to start having “uncomfortable” conversations about mental illnesses beyond anxiety and depression. We have to include people who are systemically oppressed in these conversations. We need to have visibility and representation in the media. We need access to healthcare. We need access to affordable, comprehensive healthcare that includes psychiatry and therapy. We need resources so people with mental illness do not have to hit rock bottom get professional help. No one should have to be in immediate physical danger to receive help. But right now, the bar is actually that low.
If a friend or loved one confides in you about their mental illness, there are some things you can do. Check in on them; make yourself emotionally available. Sometimes people who are struggling isolate themselves in fear of feeling like a burden. Remind them that you are there for them. Do some personal research on what they have. When I was dangerously sick with anorexia, I did not expect everyone to understand, but it meant so much to me when my loved ones watched documentaries, read books, and did online research about it in an attempt to try and understand a bit more. Do not worry about perfectionism in trying to understand or help. Again, it is a learning process, and just putting in effort makes a world of a difference to a person who is struggling.
To register to vote, please click here or the link at the bottom of this post. Electing officials for public office that support more comprehensive mental health programs and healthcare is one of the most effective modes of mental health activism, alongside having open conversations and breaking down stigma.
Every forty seconds, someone dies from suicide. Why aren’t we motivated every forty seconds to effectively combat this growing epidemic? Why do we require high-profile (rich, famous, and White—nonetheless, still absolutely tragic) suicides to remind us that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t providing adequate resources and help to people who are struggling with mental illness?
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