More often than not, I’ve heard survivors say they were blindsided by their loved one’s choice to take their own life. I said the same after my dad’s death. Sure, he seemed to be a little down but we never would have imagined something so extreme was on his mind. He was functioning at full capacity and never mentioned he was feeling suicidal. He had even “warned” us decades earlier as kids that there was nothing so bad in life that we would ever have to resort to it. How could we have missed the signs of suicide?
I think today’s news and social media landscape paints a picture of depression and mental illness that leads society to believe the signs would be as clear as the lights on Broadway. Think about commercials and magazine ads for anti-depressants. They typically show a weeping woman in a windowsill, peering out at the falling rain and grey skies. Upon taking medication, they show her outside gardening in the sunshine and enjoying time with family. This leads us to believe that depression is an obvious, black and white thing. For fear of stigma, embarrassment or other reasons, I believe that many of our loved ones shielded their true struggles, or at least significantly downplayed them. We continued to see them outside gardening in the sunshine and assumed everything was ok.
I was struck recently by two articles on this topic. The first summarized a new public awareness campaign called “Get The Picture.” Launched by an organization called Time to Change, they are encouraging companies to put an end to the use of these weeping, grey photos. Instead, they challenged people who are battling depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses to show “real” pictures of themselves. Click through here to see some of them. Similar to many of our loves ones, they showed no outward or public signs that they were feeling anything other than joy.
Social media makes it particularly easy to filter the way we portray our lives to others. I was nearly brought to tears reading an ESPN feature article on the untimely death of freshman Penn runner, Madison Holleran. (Read it here.) Madison was beautiful both inside and out and appeared to have the world at her fingertips – she illustrated this on her Instagram account. This is one of many reasons why her family, friends and teammates were so stunned when she leapt to her death last year. This article truly captivated me because Madison seems like the girl next door and, after reading about her life in such detail, I felt like I could empathize with her hidden struggles and hoped the story would somehow have an ending different than the one I knew was coming.
I applaud Time to Change for trying to shift the way we depict and look for signs of depression. We probably have no idea how many people we encounter every day who are battling something inside. The smiling barista at Starbucks, a child’s teammate, the neighbor gardening in the sunshine… This actually frightens me. Might I miss signs of suicide from someone else? We have to start looking below the surface and also making it more acceptable for people to voice what they are going through without being judged. I know that none of us would have ever judged our loved ones.
Being Mental Health Month, I’m happy to see how many more conversations and awareness-building campaigns are happening each year. We’re still not quite “there” to make this completely mainstream, but every bit helps.