How Good Intentions on Social Media Can Over-Simplify Suicide

Left: Anthony Bourdain promotes Season 11 of 'Parts Unknown' (CNN); Right: Kate Spade talks to People TV (YouTube)

It happens every time another celebrity commits suicide. Social media explodes with sympathy and expressions of grief, alongside pleas for those suffering with depression to speak up and seek help. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is widely distributed for a week or so. These well-intentioned gestures often spring from a genuine need to feel like we can, in some way, help those who are struggling and stop this from happening again.

The problem with these social media explosions though, is that they can, in their ubiquitousness, leave the overwhelming impression that people are taking their own lives simply because they have not spoken up or sought outside help, that those struggling with emotional and mental health are not being proactive enough in trying to get well.

Dr. Jane Goldberg, an author and psychoanalyst with over four decades of experience in treating patients in both private practice and group therapy, says, "Many, if not most who have successfully committed suicide have a history of looking for help. There are myriad reasons why suicidal impulses are not treated more effectively. But, it is usually not because the person hasn’t tried to get help. Chronic, clinical or even acute depression is immense; it is debilitatingly painful; it takes over one’s life. It becomes impossible to see any light at the end of the tunnel."

In fact, the celebrities we have recently lost to suicide often displayed a great deal of self-awareness about their own conditions before they died, and had clearly worked hard at getting a handle on them.

Five months before his suicide in 2017, Chester Bennington told Tech 360 HD:

"I know that for me... when I’m in my own head… this skull between my ears - that is a bad neighborhood and I should not be in there alone. So when I’m in that, my whole life gets thrown off. If I’m in there, I don’t say nice things to myself. There is another Chester in there that wants to take me down… If I’m not actively getting out of myself and being with other people, being a dad, being a husband, being a bandmate, being a friend, helping someone out… If I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside all the time... I’m a mess… This is that conscious awareness of that thing. When you can step back and look at something, you’re actually elevating yourself consciously… When I’m not working on that, my life gets messy. Finding the positive in all these things, that’s what we [Linkin Park] always try to do."

Anthony Bourdain's description of his inner struggles, shared by CNN, bears a remarkable similarity to Bennington's. “Something was missing in me," he explained, "whether it was a self-image situation, or whether it was a character flaw, there was some dark genie inside me that I very much hesitate to call a disease.” When Bourdain's daughter was born in 2007, he told People magazine that she gave him a reason to live. In a much-publicized open letter published three days after his death, Rose McGowan wrote, "before Anthony died, he reached out for help.”

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KQED Pop spoke to a Bay Area High School counselor to find out how she thinks social media activity after high-profile suicides affects teens struggling with their own mental health, and she had mixed feelings:

"After these high-profile instances, the mass of soundbites and posts seem to distill the conversation to 'mental illness, stigma, get help.' I'm a huge proponent of mental health treatment -- especially talk therapy -- and consider those things vital discussions. But I think that perspective leaves a lot of humanity out of suicide as an issue. This idea that a life was lost because of a resistance or lack of access to help really oversimplifies a very complex thing. I worry that that oversimplification can validate the sense of isolation suicidal people already feel, especially if they are already getting professional treatment."

My own life has been touched by four suicides. All of them were individuals who had actively sought help from doctors, therapists, and/or psychiatrists. Traditional medicine was sought and utilized. Friends and families rallied and did their best to build effective support networks. Assistance and shoulders were offered to varying degrees of receptiveness. None of the people who died were cowards. All of them were in unspeakable pain that I, as someone who has never experienced depression, will never fully comprehend. Each of them struggled for years, until they could struggle no more. In their deaths, I have been forced to respect their decisions, while remaining deeply frustrated that all of them, I believe, thought they were doing the best thing for their loved ones, somehow lifting a burden by leaving. The opposite is true.

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Time reports that "calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rose by 25% as the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain captured public attention." The group's director, John Draper, told the Wall Street Journal that: “The research is really clear that these calls have been shown to reduce emotional distress and suicidal crisis.” But it is vitally important that we remember that some people do speak up, have spoken up, have sought help, for years and years and years, and it has not put an end to their struggles. Circulating crisis numbers online can never be a bad thing, but it absolutely should never be the end of the conversation either. Because when we imply suicide can be prevented with a single phone call, we do a disservice to everyone.

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