Let’s talk about Mental Health, Openly and Deeply.

I’d like to take this chance to express the huge disappointment I have with how our society reacts to suicide. Over the past months and years, there have been news headlines about suicide – mostly committed by young people and celebrities –, and the reaction to these events has always been frustrating. The reactions are usually simplistic, tend to blame the victim – or his/her friends –, and when mental illness is mentioned, it’s usually only a passing remark. I’ll focus this piece on exposing the flaws with these three reactions, in the ultimate hope that, as a society, we can get past vain conversations and start discussing mental illness with the depth and seriousness it deserves.

The problem with simplistic reactions to suicide:

What do I mean when I say that our society’s’ reactions to suicide are simplistic? I mean this: the conversations tend to be very superficial, to be overly focused on our society’s misplaced materialism. We live in a society where a man’s/woman’s worth is tied to the money he/she can make, the car they can own, the house they can build, the school their children goes to, and so on and so forth. Essentially, our sense of self-worth is tied to material objects, and our society applauds the man/woman who is able to amass wealth and looks down on those who are never financially successful. This simplistic and dehumanizing nature of our society is misplaced, and it is an issue that does not help us tackle such a complex issue as mental illness. Whenever someone commits suicide, you hear people exclaim, “but he/she was so successful!” A friend was even audacious enough to propose that only well-off people commit suicide, without any verifiable statistics to back his claims (this is nonsense, of course: suicide affects all strata of society, with no regard to anyone’s class). These reactions go to show how we tend to simplify mental health issues and wrongly equate financial success with mental well-being.

Since our society is so materialistic, we are so shocked by suicide because it reminds us that material success is not a cure for mental illness. And, even though most people, in the wake of a suicide, are able to make the disconnect between mental illness and material prosperity, they don’t go further to try to think past materialism. If material success does not bring the happiness that people crave, then what factors should we pursue to ensure mental wellness? If money does not bring satisfaction nor shield one from depression, then what’s its essence? If a job is not fulfilling or satisfying, what other aspects of life can lead one to happiness and mental wellness? These are some of the hard questions that we should be asking ourselves, and then we will begin to appreciate the complex and catastrophic mental health crisis that faces our society, and even start to address it effectively.

Who is to blame for suicide?

My second frustration is with society’s blamatory reaction to suicide. Looking at threads about Papa Dennis’ unfortunate suicide on social media, I was shocked to see people blame Papa Dennis and even his friends for his death! This is not the first time that this has happened, and I realize that this behavior is a result of a lack of understanding about mental illness. I have witnessed a mob beating a person who had survived from a suicide attempt in Nairobi, and this made my heart weep and eager to educate people to be more compassionate and humane. You don’t see people beating up someone because they have contracted HIV, or because they have cancer, which are considered legitimate illnesses, just like depression and the myriad of other mental illnesses that lead one to suicide. But our society doesn’t realize this yet: When someone blames a victim of suicide or attempted suicide, it goes to show how ignorant they are of the mental illness crisis in our society, and this makes us here at Project AKILI eager to tackle this challenge even more.

The second instance that’s very saddening and surprising is when people blame the friends of a suicide victim for the suicide. For example, in the case of Papa Dennis, the conversation on social media has been that his friends did not help him when he needed them the most – i.e. when he was in financial hardship and depressed –, which is mentioned to suggest that his friends are partly responsible for his suicide. First, this huge accusation is very preposterous. Essentially what people are hinting at is that Papa Dennis’ friends should take the blame for his death, that they are guilty of murder (at least on moral grounds). How callous are people to make such a preposterous suggestion, mainly based on propaganda? How insensitive has our society gotten such that we make such accusatory remarks without any facts to back our claims? In this accusation, I sense maliciousness, and I would urge us all to stop seeking simple answers to such a complex issue as suicide. I am an advocate of mental health awareness, but I’ll not be an advocate of stupidity.

In fact, I will challenge us as a society to view issues of suicide as a communal issue and not merely pass the blame on innocent individuals. By this, I mean that, as a society, we must acknowledge our failure in tackling mental illness, and therefore we are all guilty for the lives that are lost due to suicide. This communal guilt is essential for us to really grasp the immense seriousness of mental illness, and for us to take it upon ourselves to educate and care for each other with love and compassion. As such, as a society, we are all guilty of Papa Dennis’ suicide, and this should motivate us to be better at helping those of us in society suffering from mental illness.

Mental illness is at the heart of any suicide – let’s talk openly about it.

My third frustration is with the news media, and with the cursory conversations that happen on social media about mental illness. Our news media is a symptom of our society’s misplaced priorities and materialism: Whenever I read the newspaper, I am so astonished at the useless news coverage – dirty politics, sexist op-eds, and news about our country’s tycoons and their vast wealth. And whenever a suicide happens, our news media are quick to report on it, but oh, how disappointing their reportage usually is! How so unprofessional and shamefully they do their jobs! It almost seems like our news media stations are so afraid to talk about mental illness, to admit to their viewers that our country faces a mental health crisis, to educate their audience about the causes and preventative measures for mental illness. How does it help when a news station reports that someone committed suicide, only to explain it away by mentioning the financial struggles the victim had without any mention of mental illness? I have always been of the opinion that our news media – controlled by the government and self-interested politicians – is vain, but do they have to stoop so low especially on the issue of mental illness? Watching the news coverage about mental health, I always desire that the media did more investigation, talked a bit longer about mental illness and discussed it openly and critically for the benefit of their viewers, and finally, that they debated mental illness with the seriousness and empathy that it warrants. The World Health Organization has a whole list of guidelines on how to report about mental illness and suicide, and our news media outlets should do better and read the informative guideline so that they can be able to do justice to such a sensitive issue as mental illness.

It is time to rest my pen for now, and I will say this: I normally don’t like writing in such an angry tone, but my frustration has gotten the better of me. And I believe and hope that this piece will make all of us eager to educate ourselves about mental illness and motivate us to be more compassionate and caring towards each other. I hope that we will stop pointing accusatory fingers at each other and take communal responsibility to address mental illness. I hope that our media will be more thorough when reporting about mental illness.

To meaningful conversations,