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The Problem With Oprah's Message About the Recent Celebrity Suicides

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Oprah meant well. She said what many worried parents, grandparents and community leaders might say when trying to explain the unexplainable: two beloved celebrities died by suicide in the same week, just as a CDC report circulated with the updated grim statistics about suicide in our country. It seemed wherever you turned, suicide was in the news. It was a tough week for loss survivors, attempt survivors and anyone who was a fan of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

So Oprah said what I’m sure she thought was best. In an interview with Extra at the premiere of her new TV show, she told an interviewer, “Every death is here to teach us how to live better. Every death is here to remind us of our own life and the value of it.”

Here’s the full quote:

Every death, not just Anthony Bourdain, not just Kate Spade, not just people that who are famous and names that we know… every death is here to teach us how to live better. Every death is here to remind us of our own life and the value of it. So what will come of these deaths in sequence like this, the suicides, is a more open desire to talk about it. There are lots and lots of people who have not been forthcoming because they are ashamed still of talking about mental illness in their family and mental illness in people around them, but it is serious and it is real.

I get the temptation to fall into this kind of thinking — and I understand how seeing death as a lesson can help those grieving. I would never, ever, take that away from someone. Everyone grieves in their own way, and if thinking positively about a tough situation helps someone heal, more power to them.

But here’s why Oprah’s statement, in this particular context, made me cringe: Suicide doesn’t exist so we can appreciate our own lives. Suicide is not a lesson on the value of life. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s about feeling like value is ripped away from your life, whether because of a struggle with mental illness, a history of trauma, an addiction, a feeling of disconnection or any other of the complicated factors that come together when someone ends up taking their own life. It’s about a system and a society that failed to take care of that person when they needed our help the most.

What about the value of people who died by suicide’s lives? Why must their lives end for us to appreciate our own?

There are lessons to be learned from a suicide, but these are lessons for researchers, mental health professionals and peer advocates who are trying to prevent people from dying in the first place. There are lessons in the data and lessons when our mental health system fails. But we’re not spending enough money and resources to make use of those lessons. Suicide prevention funding doesn’t compare to money spent fighting other leading causes of death. On a list of research areas funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you’ll find suicide prevention listed 202 on a list of 283 research areas, sorted from most-funded to least — despite being the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

Suicide loss survivors are on their own journey, and like any other traumatic experience, will learn things about themselves and the world along the way. But the assumption that people see value in their own life after a suicide doesn’t align with the facts — perhaps especially for people who struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves. Losing someone to suicide puts you at higher risk of attempting suicide. After Robin William’s death, the suicide rate spiked. As Shelly Lotz wrote in her piece, “Learning of Chester Bennington’s Suicide as Someone Who’s Been Suicidal“:

I am very weary of my distant future, as a person with suicidal thoughts and as the surviving daughter of someone who died by suicide. I like to think I would never again turn my thoughts into a plan. But I feel a little less sure of my ability to never make that decision every time I hear of anyone’s passing in this way.

Many ripples form after someone dies by suicide. Some of these things can be good. Resources are shared and public conversations are had. Maybe you’re inspired to hug someone a little tighter or call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. We shouldn’t erase this good. We should hold onto it with every ounce of our being.

But consequential good is not the takeaway. If all it took was people dying to appreciate their own lives, plenty of people have already died for the cause and the suicide rate would have gone down. That’s not the reality we are living in.

A red carpet comment is just that. I know Oprah was coming from a good place, but people need to know you can only change the world if you’re here. We will not learn the value of life after you’re gone. We’ll miss you. We don’t need another suicide to “get the conversation started.” This is about the value of life, yes, but it’s also about Anthony, Kate, Chester, Chris, Robin, the nearly 45,000 Americans who died by suicide in 2016 and the one million people who die by suicide yearly worldwide. In life, they may have inspired us, but their death is not our inspirational quote.

Positivity has its place, and we should honor the lives of all who die, but we won’t get anywhere thinking about the “bright side.” We need action. We need money. We need resources. We need to take the shame out of suicidal thoughts, let people know their feelings are OK and then support them. We need to improve their lives and give them meaningful connections. We need to tell people their lives have value, always, not just when a celebrity dies by suicide. And the people we lost — their lives had value, too.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Bill Ebbesen

Originally published: June 13, 2018
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