This summer, Punk Rock icon, actor and writer Henry Rollins wrote a controversial opinion piece entitled ‘Fuck Suicide’ for the L.A.Weekly in which he viciously criticized those who commit suicide, including Robin Williams, who killed himself after a long battle with depression. “How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children?” Rollins wrote. “When someone negates their existence, they cancel themselves out in my mind. I have many records, books and films featuring people who have taken their own lives, and I regard them all with a bit of disdain.”
The article was shared 32,000 times on Facebook, and enraged thousands of readers who believed Rollin’s words showed a complete lack of respect for Williams and his grieving family. News outlets including the NY Daily News, Rolling Stone Magazine, Detroit Free Press, Washington Post, The Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald also reported on the backlash. But he wasn’t the only public figure to comment negatively about suicide and those suffering from mental illnesses. The KISS bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons sparked outrage after saying he is “the guy who says ‘Jump’ to those who are suicidal.
Simmons then went on to imply that people with suicidal tendencies were attention seekers. He remarked “Shut the f**k up, have some dignity and jump.” In response, several radio stations, including Power97 and BobFM in Canada declared that they will no longer play KISS music, as did leading Australian station Triple M – which owns five metropolitan stations across the country. After the fallout, Simmons also deleted his Twitter account to which he previously posted daily. Finally, last week So You Think You Can Dance judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe announced on the show that “committing suicide is both stupid and selfish.”
As much as I loathe all of these insensitive and offensive comments I am grateful that they have opened up an international dialog that is rarely that covered in our media and news outlets. However, amid the clamor, I believe that these public figures articulated some very real and strongly held beliefs that those who commit suicide and struggle with mental illness are weak, selfish and lack courage. That they should “pull themselves up by their boot straps” and “just snap out of it.” And that they don’t deserve our sympathy because “they did it to themselves.” I know that these horribly misguided comments are made over dinner tables, during happy hour and into cell phones because I have heard them. Most mental health professionals would agree that suicide is too often a result of mental illness.
There’s no “stupidity” involved when a disabling illness drives a person to take his or her own life. The shame and stigma stat stem from these commonly held messages can cause a great deal of damage. Bruce Levin, psychologist and author of several books including Surviving America’s Depression wrote that people with mental illnesses “do not need positive-thinking or condescending advice, which assumes inaction stems from ignorance, creates only more pain. Instead, people need compassion, love, and various kinds of support.” In todays culture we hold our celebrities as up as role models, emulating their taste in clothes, music, homes, political causes, art, cars, food, reading material, and lifestyles. Their opinions are regarded by many to be the gold standard regardless of how ridiculous, misinformed or irresponsible they may be. These celebrities do not only echo public sentiment, they create it. Just consider Kim Kardashian and her empire.
However, most telling was how these three celebrities chose to respond to the public outcry against their insensitive remarks. Nigel Lithgoe took to Twitter and in three posts refused to apologize. He continued to blame the victims by saying, “I will not even begin to defend my feelings toward suicide. The belief that life is not worth living is wrong. Because a mentally ill person is incapable of judgement does not make the act of suicide any less stupid or selfish.” He also admitted that he has lost two people to suicide and perhaps his experience has impacted his misguided beliefs. It’s not for me to make this assumption. Rock star Gene Simmons has expressed regret in a Facebook message
“I was wrong and in the spur of the moment made remarks that in hindsight were made without regard for those who truly suffer the struggles of depression.” However, it was Henry Rollins’ reaction which surprised me the most. In addition to apologizing he also pledged to educate himself on the topic. After his original article, Rollin’s penned a follow-up titled, “More thoughts on suicide,” in which he took responsibility and thanked the people who sent responses.
“I appreciate them all because they were written with complete sincerity, even if some had only two words, the second being “you.” . . . I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me.” But then Rollins shared his own struggles with depression. “There have been some truly awful stretches, as I am sure there have been for anyone who deals with depression, that have at times rendered me almost paralytic.” Rollins wrote. It may seem appalling that he would make these derogatory remarks after suffering from depression himself. However, a research paper in the US National Library of Medicine entitled “Stigma as a Barrier to Recovery” noted the stigma may be so pervasive that “persons with mental illness may begin to accept these notions and internalize these stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs that are widely endorsed within society”.
Perhaps this was the case with Rollins but it wouldn’t be fair for me to make that conjecture. Rollins concluded with a message of regret and a commitment to learn from this experience: “I have no love for a fixed position on most things. I am always eager to learn something. I promise that I will dig in and educate myself on this and do my best to evolve. Again, thank you.” To be sure, there are many who believe that these all are just insincere apologies by celebrities who are interested only in protecting their image and endorsements. I do not know if Simmons or Rollins are being genuine. I hope so because people can change. I know it, in fact because I have.
It shames me now to admit that I once held similar misguided opinions about mental illness but this was before I got a Masters degree in counseling, before I worked with students in crisis at Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University and UCLA and before I lived with a decade-long diagnosis of major chronic depression. In other words I got educated, I learned and I changed. The concept that mental illness is a disease which twists reality and affects the way one thinks, perceives and remembers is one that is not often discussed. Blame towards the victim and a lack of understanding is what keeps so many alone with their secrets.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. That is too many people who must bear the stigma and the judgement of the ill-informed. I am proud of the mental health community and media outlets who stood to be counted by taking these public figures to task. As a result damaging misconceptions were exposed and more importantly relevant information about mental illness and suicide was shared with the public at large. The good news is that a more open conversation about suicide and depression may be on the horizon in this country, as the indie film, “Skeleton Twins,” a movie with suicide and suicide attempts at the core of the story, won big audiences in its debut weekend in movie theaters across the country. It is my hope that more people will get educated, learn and change.