Last Friday, the world lost a brilliant chef and a brilliant writer in Anthony Bourdain. The well-known chef, writer, and television host was discovered dead in his Paris hotel room while shooting for Parts Unknown, a series that saw him tour the world in search of exotic food and unique cultures.
On June 5, Kate Spade was found dead by suicide in her apartment. The designer enjoyed extraordinary success in her field, with handbags bearing her name cherished by millions of women around the globe today.
On April 20, DJ Tim Bergling (better known as Avicii) took his own life in an opulent private villa in Oman. He was at the peak of his career, with a net worth of approximately US$85 million (S$113.6m).
Three suicides in three months, all involving wealthy and respected people who appeared to have everything. Why did they choose to end their lives?
We may never know the full story behind these tragedies, but their deaths have brought to light some misconceptions regarding suicide.
Take for example the remarks made by a commenter on Singapore’s Straits Times Facebook page which shamed Avicii for taking his own life, calling the DJ “selfish” and a “coward”. In the post, it was argued that other people living in less privileged parts of the world chose to remain living even in the face of far greater burdens, such as “actual war, genocide, slavery and torture”.
Statements like these reveal two problems with the way parts of society view suicide.
Firstly, we often fail to realise that physical hardship isn’t a prerequisite for emotional pain: the most outwardly successful, glamorous people can be hurting beneath the surface.
Secondly, some people still mistakenly blame the victims, framing suicide as a conscious, deliberate choice, and a selfish one.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate
When we see those with lives that seem happy, or even perfect from the outside, we can be blinded to the possibility of them suffering internally, but recent events suggest that material privilege and success alone offer little protection against feelings of grief and despair.
The Pride spoke to Y.Y. Low, 42, a health psychologist with 15 years of experience and the founder of Healology, a private psychology clinic. She told us that “stress doesn’t discriminate, and can be in anyone’s life”.
“Outward success can be even more stressful, because these people need to maintain a particular outward image. It’s often public success, private failure,” she explained, illustrating how the inner struggles of high-flyers are often hidden from the public eye.
Indeed, suicide is a complex phenomenon which frequently lacks a singular cause. The Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), a suicide prevention group, explain on their website that suicidal crises can come from a number of sources: relationship problems, low self-esteem, or depression. These factors could be present even in the life of a high-performing individual, and aren’t reflected in traditional benchmarks like wealth and career performance.
Mental illness can also prevent these individuals from recognising the good in their lives, regardless of what others perceive. Christine Wong, executive director of SOS, described how a suicidal crisis can affect one’s mindset.
“[Suicidal crises] include a deep sense of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, a sense of being overwhelmed, and meaninglessness. This can lead to a sort of tunnel vision, where they can no longer see outside of their desperate situation. Unable to see other options, unable to believe that anything but ending their lives will help. They feel trapped, unable to control or change their circumstance, and so take action on the only thing they still have control of – their lives.”
The reality is that that the dark thoughts and emotions that haunt those affected are as varied and complex as the individuals themselves. Unless we look closely, the suffering of others is often invisible to us.
It’s a lesson that’s especially apt for Singaporeans. We generally have access to safe environs, reliable services, and lead comfortable lives. We certainly don’t have to deal with “genocide, slavery and torture”. Yet, in 2016, 429 people took their own lives here in Singapore.
It goes to show that even in a wealthy and successful society like ours, people’s emotional well-being cannot be taken for granted. And if we expect only those with obvious problems to be at risk of suicide, we may be putting those whose problems we don’t see at risk.
Suicide-shaming doesn’t help
When people get cancer or heart disease, they seek help for the condition. The sufferers and those around them would expect them to. But this isn’t the case when it comes to ailments of the mind.
Many tend to see mental illnesses as internal in origin. The unfortunate corollary of that notion is that we falsely expect sufferers to have control of their condition, and therefore be able to “snap out of it” with sufficient effort of will. Seeking help then becomes a sign of weakness, an acknowledgment that the sufferer is somehow less than whole.
“There is definitely a strong stigma in Singapore around mental health issues,” said Low on how people here perceive mental illness.
“Singaporeans don’t want to be labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘having something wrong with them’, and the willingness to seek help is reduced because of this stigma,” she added.
Shaming the dead feeds that stigma. By portraying suicides as choices taken in selfishness, such careless words can worsen things for the living.
“When we encounter constant episodes of having our own emotions undermined in times of crisis, it is inevitable to experience an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and worthlessness,” Wong added.
According to SOS, suicide is seldom an impulsive action, and often comes only after prolonged consideration. While suicide can be prevented through the early detection of suicidal thoughts, shaming may make it harder for sufferers to express their feelings.
“Depression is quite rampant in Singapore, and there are a lot of undiagnosed cases because of a lack of education and awareness,” said Low. This, in addition to the stigma, is why sufferers don’t seek help.
Many of those who are depressed may fail to report it because they are unaware of the condition too.
“Often depressed people don’t even realise it, because there’s no one to tell them, and the sadness just becomes part of their lives,” said Low.
Is suicide really a selfish act? Perhaps not. Wong told us that “more often than not, individuals do not want to end their lives – they just want to get out of the overwhelming or painful situation they are in.”
So when people lash out at victims of suicide by casting their actions as selfish or cowardly, their response invalidates the pain felt by sufferers of depression and makes it seem like mental illness isn’t a real medical condition. Such statements feed into the existing stigma, and could affect sufferers, even if unintentional. Seeing problems like theirs dismissed and diminished in popular discourse would make sufferers see their condition as an embarrassment.
“Fear of negative judgement acts as a barrier to help-seeking behaviours,” said Wong. “This increases the likelihood that mental illness goes unnoticed and untreated, predisposing the individual to a higher risk of suicidal ideation. Without the support needed, the sense of isolation and despair may become overwhelming and lead to thoughts of suicide.”
The danger then is that their thoughts of inadequacy, helplessness, and self-hatred could intensify to the point where they consider death preferable to facing yet another day.
How best to approach those at risk, and how to seek help?
The best thing that we can do for those around us is to be kind and understanding, in order to fight back against the stigma against mental health issues and encourage others to seek help.
“The perception that suicide is a sign of weakness or cowardice stems from a lack of empathy to the struggles of people in a crisis”, said Wong.
“We advocate the need for more empathy and kindness in our community. When we put down our judgemental lenses and stop to listen to and understand the struggles someone is experiencing, we encourage people to be open about expressing their emotions, and to embrace social support around them.”
Although mental health treatment and professional help are easily available in Singapore, the first line of defence will always be friends, family, and colleagues.
“Parents and friends are often the ones who seek help on [affected people’s] behalf,” said Low. Which makes sense, because those whom we interact with daily are most able to spot self-destructive thoughts and feelings.
That said, it’s not easy to acknowledge the symptoms of mental illness, especially if someone we love is involved. Denial is a common response and many may quietly hope the person is just going through a rut, or a bad day, or a phase.
Still, there’s no harm in showing care, and every little bit helps. A simple text message, a hug, or a sit-down with the person over coffee could be what gives them the strength to see another day.
Wong recommended reaching out. “If you know someone who is contemplating suicide, it can be useful to express your concern and talk about it with them. It is important that this is done in a caring and non-judgmental manner.”
If you’re speaking with someone who is feeling suicidal, it’s important to listen and not just talk, so as to give them an outlet for their experiences. When it’s time for you to say your piece, the SOS considers it essential to encourage them to seek professional help, and perhaps also support them by offering to accompany them there.
And, if you are feeling down yourself, please, seek help. Suicide is a preventable tragedy, and nobody should ever have to feel like life isn’t worth living.
At the end of the day, mental illness isn’t a behavioural problem that people ought to be judged or punished for, but an actual medical condition that should be met with empathy, compassion and the opportunity to be treated.
So take a moment to think about those people you know and love now, and whether they’re feeling alright.
And help them find the strength to go on.
Helplines for those in need:
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788