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Social Media, Suicide, and Ending the Taboo on Discussing Mental Illness

Nearly 700 blog posts have been written (according to Google Blogsearch) about Trey Pennington’s suicide on Sunday. Somebody’s even curating a collection of these posts.

In the U.S., about 2,800 people kill themselves every month—that’s nearly 100 every day. They don’t get the same level of coverage, but Pennington was an occupant of the social media fish bowl. A lot of people knew him, so it’s only logical that they’ve used this one, solitary, single suicide—which led to the public disclosure of his depression—as a clarion call.

The blogs—and thousands of tweets, Google+ posts, Facebook updates and other contributions—have reminded us to appreciate the people in our lives. Some also suggest that the social media connections we make are often not real friendships, so you don’t know what’s under the surface of somebody you’ve seen at some conferences and with whom you’ve exchanged a few tweets, someone who appeared upbeat and untroubled, someone you counted as a “friend” but who really, under the classic definition, wasn’t.

The thing is, this most dire problem pre-dates social media. When I was 17 or so, in 1971 or 72, a friend killed himself with a gunshot to the head. All of his friends—and these were truly friends—were stunned. We had no idea he’d been struggling with depression.

We rarely do. Social media isn’t the problem; our lives are a messy mix of close friends, casual friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. (The fact that Facebook chooses to call them all “friends” doesn’t mean a thing. It’s just like real life.) The problem is that, in this era where so many topics that once were forbidden are now open (like sexuality and cancer), mental illness remains a taboo.

Corporate wellness programs address smoking cessation, weight loss and other physical issues. When was the last time you saw a corporate wellness initiative that looked at mental health? That remains the province of employee assistance programs, where everything is nice and quiet.

My wife, Michele, has chosen not to be quiet. About eight years ago, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She sees a therapist and a psychopharmacologist. She takes a cocktail of medications. And she writes openly about the condition.

For 14 years, Michele has authored a weekly email newsletter for our synagogue’s sisterhood. (She also spent three years as president of the group.) Some 300 women (and a few men) subscribe to bulletin, the first half of which is a collection of upcoming save-the-date notices. The second half is her personal commentary. She’s a terrific writer. Her columns about our vacations can be laugh-out-loud funny. She can be incisive and thoughtful when addressing politics or societal issues.

But her most poignant columns deal with her struggle with bipolar disorder. I’m sharing one of these—I asked her to pick the one she thought would best sum up the situation—in the wake of Pennington’s death. I didn’t know Pennington—I have to confess that if I’d heard of him before yesterday, I don’t remember. But if all the attention in the social media space the shock of his passing has prompted is to accomplish anything, it should be the start of a movement to end the taboo on the open discussion of mental illness. Until people aren’t ashamed to bring their illness to light, there will be far too many more Trey Penningtons.

Here’s the column Michele wrote last October:

guest post from Michele Holtz

Michele HoltzI feel like I am disappearing from my life. I am in the grip of my b-polar and my fight isn’t going so well right now. I have lost five pounds in five weeks, something I’m not supposed to do. I’m growing thinner and thinner, I have no appetite. I eat very little now and when I do eat a full meal, it’s mostly because I am force feeding myself. I do this because I don’t want to lose all of my strength and it seems to please other people to see me eat.
I’ve been both depressed and anxious. Bummer when they happen together. My depression has been deep: a trigger here, a trigger there is enough to put me in a spot where my depression gets out of hand.  But even so, I try to get past it. The trouble is, it doesn’t always work.

I can feel myself sinking into shame. Yes, shame. I can’t sleep very well in spite of the pills because my mind is full of could have, should have and then anxiety takes over. I yell at myself while trying to get to sleep. So, Michele, I ask myself, why can’t you pull it together?

It takes all that I have to slap a smile on my face and participate in life. I know I have to do this or I will never leave my house. I have to wind myself up and do what needs to be done. And I do it with my heart in my throat.  My depression, my anxiety keeps me in my house, the only place I feel safe.

Because of this, I don’t get out much and I only go close to my house. I have to rely on my family and the kindness of others to go just about anywhere. I am very sensitive to the changing of light and dark. With the days growing shorter I feel my bipolar symptoms getting worse. I can’t drive in the dark and haven’t been able to for quite some time. I don’t know if I will ever be able to drive in the dark again. I don’t know how far I can drive in the light because of my fears.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am better in a couple of areas and I do have good days. But when you are depressed, those good days seem few and far between. When I try to call them to mind, they seem meaningless. I remind myself that I used to think of suicide and I no longer have those thoughts. And I know that other people have the same thoughts.
Thoughts of suicide are a loudspeaker telling you that you need help, quickly. (If you are having these thoughts, stop reading this and call someone. Call a hotline, I have and they are very helpful. Call a friend, call me if you like because I know how you feel and am always ready to listen.)

But that’s what untreated depression can lead to. It’s a thief that robs you of your happiness, your self-esteem and gradually takes over your life. 

I say all this without self pity. And I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed, but sometimes you just can’t help it. I know that my disorder is incurable but, with loving help from family, friends and therapy, I’m trying to get over the shame. And the only way to get over it is to say it, write it and let everyone know that it’s the way I feel.
I am hardly alone in my depression. I’m sure that at least some of you are struggling with this terrible feeling. I haven’t given up although sometimes I feel like it. I go to therapy; I do what my therapist tells me, I take my meds and hope that they will do some good. I am monitored very closely.

Please don’t let yourself go through this alone. You may feel alone, but you are not. But if you are going to feel any better, if your depression persists or is keeping you from living your life, you need real help. It’s hard to start on the path to happiness but for your own sake, you need to do this.

You have worth, even if you don’t feel it. If you are unsure about seeking help, keep a mood chart for a month. Mark the times you feel depressed or anxious. It’s a real eye opener if you are faithful to your chart. Watch your patterns and then you can see, right before your eyes, how you are doing and if your chart looks bad to you, get help.

As for me, I’m still working on this monster of roller-coaster emotions. Giving up just is not an option and it shouldn’t be an option for you, either.


Join The Conversation

  • Sep 6 Posted 5 years ago jennifer praeger (not verified)

    Thank you Shel and thanks to your wife, for writing such a remarkable and courageous article. Many of us have lost people we have loved to suicide and Michele really gave me some insight into what clinical depression is like. Very powerful article - again thank you both for sharing so honestly.

  • Sep 6 Posted 5 years ago Tanya Garrett, Media (not verified)

    I just lost my best friend on June 20, 2011.  She committed suicide.  My beautiful best friend, always dressed to impress with a smile and a kind word for every single person she would encounter, jumped off a 25 story building. My world stopped and became a blur for nearly a month. A FB friend of mine, who I only knew thru mutual friends and at met a time or two in passing, extended his professional services to me at extremely crucial time. I never thought I would need a psychologist. I studied psychology for a semester in college, so I was aware that I was depressed but I didn't have any clarity, about anything.  I couldn't remember a conversation I would have earlier in the day.  I couldn't tell you my childhood address, where my parents still reside.  I was a mental mess.  One's mental health needs to be taken very seriously.  One should not feel ashamed or fear they will be looked down upon for seeking or receiving mental therapy.  The awareness is half the battle.  My sincere condolenses to the Pennington family and to anyone who has been through the loss of a loved one from suicide.

  • Sep 6 Posted 5 years ago AnonymousJamie Peha (not verified)

    Thank-you for writing this article.  I totally agree with you on all counts.  The society needs to get past the taboo of these difficult subjects and educate folks on what to look for and how to help.  I've been too close to all these things at every point in my life be it family or friends or self.  And, I will forever reach out and spread the word for others to look beyond what you see on the surface and lend a helping hand to those that are suffering before its too late.  Again, thanks for sharing. 

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