Should it really take tragic celebrity suicides to shine the spotlight on mental health?
Ernest Hemingway shot himself in 1961. Kurt Cobain shot himself in 1994. Alexander McQueen took a cocktail of drugs and hanged himself in 2010. Robin Williams hanged himself in 2014. Chris Cornell hanged himself May 2017. And now Chester Bennington from Linkin Park.
The World Health Organization estimates there were 788 000 suicide deaths worldwide in 2015. That's a rate of 10.7 per 100 000 people.
Let that sink in for a moment. Seven hundred and eighty-eight thousand people chose to end their lives in one year.
Sadly, though, it seems like it takes the death of a celebrity such as Linkin Park’s lead singer Chester Bennington for the world to take notice of mental health.
Living with a mental illness is difficult. Even with the advances in treatment, it’s a constant daily struggle. Bennington’s death rocked the world and many people took to social media to share their grief.
The lyrics from Linkin Park’s hit Numb read: "I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there. Become so tired, so much more aware. I’m becoming this, all I want to do is be more like me and less like you."
For me, depression manifests as a fog that follows me everywhere I go. The fatigue I feel is constant and debilitating, and getting out of bed every single day is a struggle. I feel numb. When the fog gets heavy, I start to doubt myself. I stop believing in myself. In our darkest hours, depression makes us believe that we are burdens to the people in our lives.
Depression has this terrible way of creeping up on you – making you feel like you’re worth nothing.
I take every day as it comes and allow myself to experience the lows. I constantly remind myself that the low (depression) will pass and life will get better again. The good days are what get me through the bad ones.
But the fact remains: I have depression.
Suicide is not cowardly; it’s real
The lyrics from the last song Bennington wrote, Heavy from the first single from Linkin Park's seventh album "One More Light", perhaps hint at his suicidal thoughts: "I'm holding on, why is everything so heavy? Holding on to so much more than I can carry. I keep dragging around what's bringing me down. If I just let go, I'd be set free."
Suicide is always labelled as the coward’s way out, it’s selfish to the people you leave behind. But what you have to understand is that when you suffer from depression, you see suicide as a way of relieving those who love you from the burden you are.
You believe they will be better off without you; they will be able to get on with their lives without worrying about you and your depression.
I don’t expect everyone to understand that or agree with it but I do ask that you choose the words you use around mental illness and suicide carefully.
I lost someone I knew to suicide in 2015. I remember the day I received the news – it shocked me to my core. I listened to the opinions of how he was a coward, how he was selfish and took the easy way out. “How could he have done that to his family?” They asked.
But what was less obvious was that he had been dealing with his own demons. I grieved for him, for his death. But I also mourned for the utter despair that depression brought him. And then I prayed that in his death he would find the peace he was looking for and the inevitable release from the torments of his depression. The torments I face every single day.
His death went unnoticed as one of those 788 000 who committed suicide in 2015 – only those who knew him, knew he had killed himself. Yet, when a celebrity chooses to take his or her life, the world suddenly comes to a standstill and yet, while mourning, people question why someone like Bennington would commit suicide. He had it all – fame, fortune, family.
Depression affects 300 million people
But that’s the thing about depression; it doesn’t discriminate against age, gender or wealth. And unfortunately it takes celebrities committing suicide and opening up to their struggles for the world to take notice – but always briefly while it’s newsworthy and trending.
Ashley Judd checked into a treatment facility in 2006. She told Glamour magazine, “I needed help. I was in so much pain.”
Ryan Phillippe’s battle began when he was young. He told Elle magazine, “As you get older, I think it decreases more, but I’m just innately kind of a sad person.”
Jon Hamm told InStyle magazine, “We live in a world where to admit anything negative about yourself is seen as a weakness, when it’s actually a strength. It’s not a weak move to say, ‘I need help.’ ”
Robin Williams, who committed suicide in 2014, told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2006, “Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh yeah.”
JK Rowling’s dark moods inspired the soul-sucking Dementors in the Harry Potter books. She opened up to Oprah Winfrey, “It’s so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. But it’s that cold absence of feeling – that really hollowed-out feeling.”
Stop using the word 'stigma'
Yet why does stigma still exist around mental illness? And should we be using the word stigma that comes with its own set of negative connotations? Is a word like prejudice or discrimination not more accurate? Would people take more notice of mental illness then?
“Other people are worse off than you.”
“Pull yourself together.”
“It could be worse.”
Sure, it’s easy to use those words but the old adage walk a mile in someone else’s shoes rings true when it comes to mental illness. Unless you’ve walked the road of mental illness it’s hard to understand how hurtful those words are. How difficult it makes life, how it sucks the will to live from you.
If there is one thing I ask, grieve for the death of Chester Bennington, celebrate his life and his music but stop stigmatising mental illness. Stop discriminating against those who suffer (often in silence) from mental illness. Start talking about mental illness openly and with compassion.
As George Shrouder tweeted shortly after Bennington’s death: "Depression is hard to understand. But if it can kill Robin Williams, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington I’d say it’s pretty damn real."
Yes, depression is pretty damn real.
If you need help, contact SADAG. You can speak to a counsellor between 08:00 and 20:00 Monday to Sunday by calling 011 234 4837. For a suicidal emergency call 0800 567 567. The 24-hour contact is 0800 12 13 14. Alternatively, you can SMS 31393and SADAG will call you back.
Images supplied by iStock.