Stigma, Suicide, & Our Stereotypes Around Mental Health
“How many siblings do you have?”
It’s a normal get-to-know-you question on first dates or during casual watercooler talk when you’re new at the office. (Is watercooler talk still a relevant cultural reference? Please LMK.) Maybe being an only child is your fun-fact during icebreakers. Or maybe you celebrate “national sibling day” with such intensity that no one in your life even has to ask—your throwback pics do all the talking. It’s a harmless topic and easy question, probably as safe as asking about the weather. You either have some, or you don’t.
But I cringe at this question and usually say: “I’m the youngest of five,” hoping there’s no follow-up. If there is, I end up disclosing (in one way or another), that my oldest brother is married and has three little girls; that my older sister is an OBGYN; that my twin sister is five minutes my senior and still lives in New York, and that two and a half years ago, my older brother died by suicide.
When I write or talk openly about this fact, or about mental health, addiction, or suicide in general (which is more frequent than you’re probably thinking), I can tell that people are often uncomfortable. I cross my fingers that there’s no follow-up to the sibling question for other people’s sakes—not mine. It’s hard for new friends or co-workers to know what to say; it’s hard to know whether they should ask more questions or just offer the fallback “I’m so sorry” and try to change the subject.
I don’t blame them for not knowing what to do or say; for not knowing how to respond to this kind of news or this topic of conversation. As a society, we have pushed conversations around mental health to the periphery—often only bringing it up when it’s convenient for some political issue, but not addressing everyday concerns like having adequate facilities and resources for people struggling; confronting shame around mental illness to reduce deterrents to getting help; or challenging stigmas that prevent us from talking openly about how our loved ones passed and what we can do to prevent further losses like theirs.
Despite how rampant anxiety, depression, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse, addiction, (and so on) are in our society—and how much they rise each year—we are still terrible at talking about mental health.
Last month, in addition to being a month dedicated to conversations around stereotypes here at W&D, was also Mental Health Awareness Month. Really, the two go hand-in-hand. Think of the stereotypes we have about beloved celebrities like Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and just recently, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. We naively entertain the idea that they couldn’t be—in fact, who could be?—struggling to the point of death. As a culture, we tend to act surprised every time we encounter suicide. But the CDC recently released a comprehensive study on this health crisis, explaining that “suicide rates have increased in nearly every state over the past two decades, and half of the states have seen suicide rates go up more than 30 percent.” It’s a major health issue. And (believe it or not), it’s contagious.
For a culture that is paralyzed at the prospect of these discussions, I was reassured by the handful of social media posts that cropped up in the month of May that frankly acknowledged and admitted the struggles of mental health. I loved this Twitter thread about reasons to live. In fact, Kate’s own model of witnessing to these realities (and now the crew of contributors who follow her lead)—instead of pretending everything is as rosy as a filtered Instagram picture might suggest—is one of the reasons I’ve been a reader of this blog for so long.
But we have to do better than just reading and writing things on the internet. We have to stop saying “I’m so OCD” about being Type-A or well-organized or concerned with tidiness, because obsessive-compulsive disorder is a real illness that is correlated to one of the highest rates of suicide for those who suffer with it. We have to stop conflating the normal, healthy highs and lows of a given day with clinical anxiety or clinical depression. We have to stop using bipolar to describe people we find moody. We really, really (I’m begging you) have to stop using “killing myself” as a punchline to some eye-rollingly torturous experience like sitting through a boring board meeting.
All of these seemingly harmless rhetorical tendencies prevent people who need real help from seeking it, because of the way it cheapens the seriousness of a person’s experience who is suffering under the weight of a medical issue. Not only that, but it actually inhibits our ability to respond with clarity and understanding when we do learn that someone we know is fighting this kind of interior battle. If you only understand depression as something you feel when they don’t have your size left in a pair of sale-item shoes—I hate to break this to you, but—you’re really not fit to relate to someone who actually has depression.
I know this inability to talk about mental health is part of the reason people are dumbfounded or speechless or grasping for platitudes when I mention my own closeness to suicide, the addictions my family has witnessed and experienced, the bouts of depression and anxiety I and others have known intimately. They don’t know what to say because they have never been taught to take these things seriously. And because our society has swept them under the rug, until we have to take seriously (for a day or two, before the news cycle moves on) the loss of an icon or celebrity, jokes in bad taste and cavalier references to serious diseases are really all we know how to stomach.
If this sounds like you: please read a book (some starters are listed below!), attend a lecture, ask to get coffee with someone who has gone through something difficult and *very gently* ask if they might help educate you. Then add a scone to that coffee date and foot the bill, because they are being very vulnerable to help you learn, and a scone is the least you can do. The nature of mental illness is that it often strikes at willpower; knowing a hotline or resource is available is one thing, but actually calling can feel—indeed, often is—impossible. So if you know someone who is struggling, take the advice of one of my good friends and do concrete acts for them. Offer to drive them to the doctor. Help them figure out insurance coverage or look up therapists. Bring them food. Sit with them until they feel safe again.
I also know that people are dumbfounded and speechless because they have known similar pains and have never felt safe to say so out loud. After making it clear that I’m comfortable talking about these issues, it is remarkable how often people feel they can safely come out of the woodwork and admit their own struggles, or the way suicide or mental illness has bruised their own lives and their own families, or the fact that they also see or have seen a therapist for some duration. It’s amazing how many people are hiding in plain sight with unseen battles and struggles; more amazing yet is the way that being open to such dialogue often gives others the freedom to do the same.
If this sounds like you but you haven’t yet felt safe to say so: please tell someone you trust; if needed, seek professional help with the same certainty someone with cancer knows to seek treatment; and even if you don’t wear it like a badge of honor, please understand that you’re not only not alone in your experience, but that it’s more common than you might imagine. Please know that we’d like you to feel better and we’d really like you to stick around.
Often the stereotypes we have for ourselves include picture-perfect lives and rosy Instagram pictures. Isn’t that dumb? We feel like because we have a partner or a cute dog or a great job we shouldn’t feel sad or quite so overwhelmed anymore. That’s also dumb.
We are good at working to reject the stereotypes that we feel limit us—but sometimes we have to resist the narrative that we can do it all and that we’re DOING JUST FINE throughout. Sometimes we’re not doing fine! We have to acknowledge that there are some boxes we fit in that maybe we wish didn’t suit us. Boxes like depression or anxiety or alcoholism. These aren’t death sentences, and refusing to acknowledge them won’t make them go away. More importantly, these illnesses are not who you are. We don’t describe people who have cancer as “cancerous people,” we just say they have cancer. It is separate from them. It’s external. But because mental health feels so wrapped up with minds—with our personalities and identities—there’s often an extra hurdle to overcome in getting help. This is one of the most toxic stereotypes we can buy into: that our mental illness is just “who we are.”
There’s a lot of work to be done breaking down these hurdles, breaking into public discourse, and breaking through stereotypes when it comes to mental health issues. But whatever you can do this month—and going forward—to help these efforts will add to the already-growing movement to do better as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a society when it comes to mental health and wellness.
Below I’ve listed some resources I’ve liked or that friends and family have recommended. Maybe they work for you, or maybe not. I’d love to hear from readers about what books, podcasts, articles, talks, websites, hotlines, or resources you’d recommend for making this conversation more and more prominent in our culture—please comment below!
IF YOU ARE STRUGGLING:
Crisis Text Line: Text home to 741741 for free, 24/7 support in the United States
My Wellbeing: a resource to help connect you with therapists (available right now only on the east coast, unfortunately)
Psychology Today: a resource to help connect you with therapists
IF YOU ARE NEW TO THE CONVERSATION — these won’t make you an expert, but they’ll help you enter and encourage the conversation or learn something.
All Kinds of Minds (A TedTalk series on Mental Health)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life (a photography exhibit in Boston that invites viewers to walk in the shoes of those with mental illness in the hope of reducing stigmas and confronting stereotypes)
Depression, the Secret We Share (TedTalk by Andrew Solomon)
Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson (in fact: Jenny Lawson’s two other books also come recommended, if you end up liking her work!)
@howiamfeelingg – an Instagram account and mental health community that publishes original writing and artwork from people experiencing mental illness or struggles
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Minnesota’s beloved Nora McInerny Purmort
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
“Suicide is the Leading Cause of Death For New Moms But Awareness is Low” by Catherine Pearson