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This Billboard Is Sending a Harmful Message to People Struggling With Mental Illness

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The billboard should have said, “Do something positive to make someone smile.”

There are many billboards on the interstate between Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis, Minnesota. I take this route to visit my daughter, who is attending the university. The billboard advertisements are unmemorable as there are many, not grasping the attention of those passing by. One caught my attention, though. In black letters, on a completely white board was a one-word sentence: SMILE.

The billboard brought back a memory when someone told me to smile at an unhappy time in my life.

I worked in an office building where the cafeteria was in the basement. I went down every workday to purchase my lunch and took it back to my desk to eat while working.

I was six months into a new job at a top-quartile Fortune 500 company, 10 times the size of companies where I spent my career. The company was coming out of a corporate scandal, and they hired people to help them implement changes to right the ship.

I was lonely in a company of 100,000 employees. I previously knew how to navigate in my old job, but now I was one in a vastness of people structured in a labyrinth of organizations pieced together from acquisitions with deep traditions. The rank and file had not yet come to the acceptance their current culture and practices were the reasons for the corporate issues with regulators, auditors, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the subject of lawsuits. My assignments came with challenges to change something hard-coded in the DNA. Each night I went home defeated. Within six months of landing there, I was actively searching for alternatives to get out, and I was not the only one.

I compounded my work life with demanding home life. I went back to school for an executive Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, so I could have options and safeguard our livelihood, as I was the financial safety net. My husband went through a layoff, and we decided he would take the path of entrepreneurship. He was gone all the time, and I was working long hours and studying long nights. We both brought our stress into the house and did not hide it from our children. 

An outside agency staffed my work’s cafeteria. They came to know their customers and had cordial conversations with us as we went through the serving lines. The cashier was a friendly gentleman in his late 40s. He was pleasant to me as I went through the line each day. He sensed my body language and wrinkled face from the unhappiness. He tried to get me to bring some positivity each day through his friendly conversation, prying enough to get something beyond the response, “fine” when he asked, “How are you?”

This day, while tabulating the cost of my food selection, he looked up at me and said, “Smile.”

I did not think about it much, but now having seen the billboard, I realize in asking me to smile, he was asking me not to express my genuine emotion. Assuming positive intent, I think maybe he thought if I showed positivity to others around me, others would show positivity, too, and everything would be better. That billboard could also be sending a message smiling will solve something.

Alternatively, a billboard sending a mass campaign to smile belittles the reasons why someone is not smiling. Asking people to smile when they are not feeling that emotional state is asking them to wear a mask. 

We should not have to hide our negative emotions. It should be OK to express our sadness, anxieties and our actual state of being. By asking someone to hide true feelings, pushing them down to only arise in private, is asking them not to feel. The reality is life is not rainbows and butterflies. Allow people to be honest. It would help.

The societal issues we face in 2020 are not that simple where we can solve them by asking someone to smile. Instead, we need to advocate and elect public officials that will change the negative trajectory:

  • One in five in the U.S. experience a mental illness each year.
  • One in 25 experience a serious mental illness each year.
  • The overall suicide rate has increased by 31% since 2000.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the 2nd for ages 10 to 34.
  • Loneliness is a new epidemic. Forty-seven percent of Americans often feel alone, left out and lacking meaningful connections with others.
  • And so many other issues: affordability and accessibility of health care and prescription drugs, economic disparity, voter suppression, combating climate change, gun violence, an increase in hate crimes, discrimination and on and on.

In place of asking someone to smile, do a positive act to make them smile. Ask them, “How are you?” Wait for a genuine response. Say hello to your neighbor. Offer a helping hand to someone in need, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Stand up to the bullies, which include verbal abuse through condescending name-calling. Follow up when you know someone is struggling. Be inclusive.

Create or seek environments where people respect you for your real character and not your appearance on the outside.

I am a stronger person to stand up to the pressures of work.  I am still trying to figure out how to live this new life without my adult son, who died by suicide two years ago.  Please do not ask me to smile for you, but you can ask me how I am if you are willing to hear a real response.


Getty image by cyano66

Originally published: February 26, 2020
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