In December many of my circle were rocked by the news of tWitch’s death and the subsequent revelation that he chose to take his own life. Not only was he close in age to my circle but he had young babies of similar ages to ours. That alone would make anyone question or react. But to then learn he chose to leave this world adds another depth of realism still leaving a profound lack of understanding as to why among us. No one can truly know what is going through the mind of another but we like to think when someone presents as having it all and having it all put together that they in fact do. This isn’t always the case.
In the aftermath of this loss, I scrolled through my Instagram feed and sadly came across a post by a social media acquaintance who implied the reason for tWitch’s suicide stemmed from having worked for Ellen and Hollywood for an extended period. I was appalled by the ignorant inference, disgusted if I’m being truly honest. But I immediately was calmed by a lesson my mother had taught me. People don’t know what they don’t know.
The thing about mental illness is we have sheltered and hidden it away for so long that when we are confronted with its tragic results we look to place blame in a logical manner, trying to find fault with someone’s life that would lead to them making such a final decision. Because we have left mental illness to reside in the taboo, treating it socially as some misgiving one can move through if they just did the right things, we lack as a society the knowledge to understand the complexity of mental illnesses. When someone makes that decision and their life is in shambles, we can rationalize, even if we don’t agree, their decision. It’s easier for us to comprehend when the external factors are severe enough how someone could take such irrevocable action, such as a mother choosing to join the child they lost. But when confronted with someone who appears to have it all together, we can’t fathom why they would do such a thing.
Again, people don’t know what they don’t know. As a society, we look at depression, anxiety, panic attacks, etc as things to be mitigated by improving one’s external self and circumstances. And while it is true that managing those external triggers can help manage depression, people often fail to see that there are complexities to mental illness just as there is a complexity of factors to that of say diabetes. Yet with diabetes, we don’t question the person. We don’t question, stigmatize or force them through misguided statements into dealing with it quietly, on their own, or worried about seeking help.
But mental illness is no less a physical illness, one that directly affects your body's physical performance. Are there triggering events that can cause it? Sometimes but not always. Sometimes it’s just dumb genetic luck. Can you appear and appear to function normally and still have depression? Yes, it’s called high-functioning depression. Can you go for years, decades even, and not know or it is known that you have depression? Yes. Just as someone can have a thyroid issue that goes undiagnosed for decades. Again, we don’t know what we don’t know.
Depression and all mental illness is still physical illness of the body. As with cancer or diabetes or any other illness, mental illnesses are multifaceted in their dynamic as an illness and treatment. We as a society have worked hard to pull back the blinders on many areas of health often shuttered for private eyes only, the latter being to our detriment: miscarriage, substance abuse, infertility, and more. The work has started on mental health. But because we don’t know what we don’t know, the signs screaming for help can go missed by those around us. Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we make statements like my social media acquaintance that further shame or isolate those experiencing mental illness. Because we don’t know what we don’t know, we also don’t know how to help.
Helping move this idea of mental health into the public eye is personal for me. I have watched many family members struggle with depression, one I watched slowly kill himself with a hard lifestyle and alcohol to self-medicate his depression. I myself have struggled with situational clinical depression and postpartum depression and anxiety. I know because of this I am more susceptible to depression, even when everything is going “right”. I have two babies that I know have a good chance of genetically experiencing the same. I don’t want them to feel the stigma that I have felt around mental health. Personally, I think it’s time to get to know what we don’t know so we can know what we need to know when we need to know, you know?