Offensive Comments About Depression and Suicide
(Updated from The Huffington Post: Malinowski Thinks)
The suicides of Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, and the Young and Restless star Kristoff St. John this year has grabbed national headlines. Unfortunately, news outlets often sensationalized the gossipy details instead of including informations regarding organizations who can provide support for those who are in need of mental health support. However, more shocking were the negative comments from celebrities surrounding these suicides.
About Anthony Bourdain actor Val Kilmer posted on Facebook “So selfish. You’ve given us cause to be so angry.” Famously in 2014 Punk Rock icon, actor and writer Henry Rollins wrote a controversial opinion piece entitled ‘Fuck Suicide’ for the L.A. Weekly in which he viciously criticized those who commit suicide, including Robin Williams, who killed himself after a long battle with depression. “How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children?” Rollins wrote. “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain.”
The article was shared 32,000 times on Facebook, and enraged thousands of readers who believed Rollin’s words showed a complete lack of respect for Williams and his grieving family. News outlets including the NY Daily News, Rolling Stone Magazine, Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald also reported on the backlash. But he wasn’t the only public figure to comment negatively about suicide and those suffering from mental illnesses. In January of 2018, Briana DeJesus of Teen Mom 2 mocked a video showing a man who had just committed suicide in a Japanese forest. Briana took to Twitter. “Wow men are p–sies lmao,” she wrote, followed by a bunch of crying emojis. Many fans encouraged MTV to fire her but she remained part of the cast.
As much as I loathe all of these insensitive and offensive comments I am grateful that they have opened up an international dialog that is rarely that covered in our media and news outlets. However, amid the clamor, I believe that these public figures articulated some very real and strongly held beliefs that those who commit suicide and struggle with mental illness are weak, selfish and lack courage. That they should “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “just snap out of it.” And that they don’t deserve our sympathy because “they did it to themselves.” I know that these horribly misguided comments are made over dinner tables, during happy hour and into cell phones because I have heard them. Most mental health professionals would agree that suicide is too often a result of mental illness.
There’s no “stupidity” involved when a disabling illness drives a person to take his or her own life. The shame and stigma stat stem from these commonly held messages can cause a great deal of damage. Bruce Levin, psychologist and author of several books including Surviving America’s Depression wrote that people with mental illnesses “do not need positive-thinking or condescending advice, which assumes inaction stems from ignorance, creates only more pain. Instead, people need compassion, love, and various kinds of support.” In todays culture we hold our celebrities as up as role models, emulating their taste in clothes, music, homes, political causes, art, cars, food, reading material, and lifestyles. Their opinions are regarded by many to be the gold standard regardless of how ridiculous, misinformed or irresponsible they may be. These celebrities do not only echo public sentiment, they create it. Just consider Kim Kardashian and her empire.
However, most telling was how these three celebrities chose to respond to the public outcry against their insensitive remarks. Val Kilmer never acknowledged the outcry from fans. Briana DeJesus even after the backlash she experienced from her insensitive comments doubled down when Anthony Bourdain died six months later. Taking to social media, "I I could never understand how someone can commit suicide that has kids. Yea, You'll no longer suffer but ur kids will. It's just sad."
She also admitted that she has lost a family member to suicide and perhaps that experience has impacted her misguided beliefs. It’s not for me to make this assumption. However, it was Henry Rollins’ reaction which surprised me the most. In addition to apologizing he also pledged to educate himself on the topic. After his original article, Rollin’s penned a follow-up titled, “More thoughts on suicide,” in which he took responsibility and thanked the people who sent responses.
“I appreciate them all because they were written with complete sincerity, even if some had only two words, the second being “you.” . . . I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me.” But then Rollins shared his own struggles with depression. “There have been some truly awful stretches, as I am sure there have been for anyone who deals with depression, that have at times rendered me almost paralytic.” Rollins wrote. It may seem appalling that he would make these derogatory remarks after suffering from depression himself. However, a research paper in the US National Library of Medicine entitled “Stigma as a Barrier to Recovery” noted the stigma may be so pervasive that “persons with mental illness may begin to accept these notions and internalize these stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs that are widely endorsed within society”.
Perhaps this was the case with Rollins but it wouldn’t be fair for me to make that conjecture. Rollins concluded with a message of regret and a commitment to learn from this experience: “I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you.” To be sure, there are many who believe that these all are just insincere apologies by celebrities who are interested only in protecting their image and endorsements. I do not know if Simmons or Rollins are being genuine. I hope so because people can change. I know it, in fact because I have.
It shames me now to admit that I once held similar misguided opinions about mental illness but this was before I got a Masters degree in counseling, before I worked with students in crisis at Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University and UCLA and before I lived with a decade-long diagnosis of major chronic depression. In other words I got educated, I learned and I changed. The concept that mental illness is a disease which twists reality and affects the way one thinks, perceives and remembers is one that is not often discussed. Blame towards the victim and a lack of understanding is what keeps so many alone with their secrets.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. That is too many people who must bear the stigma and the judgement of the ill-informed. I am proud of the mental health community and media outlets who stood to be counted by taking these public figures to task. But reasons for suicide are complex, and anyone can be at risk, regardless of social or socioeconomic status. As a result damaging misconceptions were exposed and more importantly relevant information about mental illness and suicide was shared with the public at large. The good news is that a more open conversation about suicide and depression may be on the horizon in this country. It is my hope that more people will get educated, learn and change.