I see a lot of sadness, bewilderment and inspirational hashtags floating around social media after the tragic suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. The open grieving and well-intentioned thoughts are necessary but let me remind you this surge of mental health awareness won’t last. What’s more alarming, in the context of other suicides such as Kurt Cobain and Robin Williams, not much changed after those high-profile deaths.
I have worked in the mental health and social work profession for about 25 years and mental illness continues to be this elusive and misunderstood thing. It’s no wonder that people are confused with many confounding social, medical, economic, and environmental factors which shape mental health. Throw addiction into the midst and it becomes a cluster &@#$. The only thing everyone seems to agree about is when a suicide occurs it’s terrible and should have never happened in the first place.
But inevitably no matter the gains in public education, personal storytelling and policy to reduce the stigma of mental illness and provide greater access to treatment, we end up right back in the same place. This immovable idea, spoken and unspoken, still persists that people with mental illness are fundamentally broken and beyond repair, violent, and weak. This has produced a fundamentally broken and beyond repair behavioral health system. This is perpetuated in debates around gun rights, health care access, the role social media plays in our lives … the list goes on. The “us versus them,” “it can’t happen to me,” and “not in my backyard,” plays out in countless ways. The denial, fear and blame game is conquering us.
I normally try to be optimistic but this year has been tough. Congratulations America, suicide rates are higher than ever, opioid addiction is out of control, you have elected politicians who want to strangle access to mental health care and health care and, bullying is mainstream and now described as “leadership.” Above all, we are desperately afraid to admit the outsized role mental illness and addiction plays in our lives. Until this fear is vanquished we will continue to lose more people to suicide.