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Suicide and Mental Illness are not Synonymous, So Quit Jumping to Conclusions

I come from a country where you have to be stark-raving mad on the streets before people start talking about mental illness. In fact, despite being a Third World country, the only homeless people we have—though perhaps there are some exceptions I’ve never seen—are “mad people”.

Most often, the term “mad” refers to people who have suffered mental breakdowns or some other onset of serious mental illness due to trauma or substance abuse. In other instances, “mad” may refer to people who struggle with mental disabilities that make a functional and independent life impossible. Things like depression are for med students, while anxiety is for rich people and First-Worlders.

If you haven’t already noticed, Jamaicans are not politically correct people. We do not use euphemistic terms to disguise what we see. In fact, in college, political correctness was taught to me as “this is what the Americans expect you to say”. So, as I am Jamaican, you will forgive me for this cultural idiosyncrasy of “madness” throughout the article. If you cannot, I suggest you stop reading.

The Disclaimer

That said, before I continue with this, let me drop the disclaimer that I have experienced trauma on multiple occasions in my life, the least of which was neither on-going physical abuse by a family member when I was a minor, or the fact that my college actually had an informal evacuation procedure for me as this family member continually violated his restraining order and showed up on campus to terrorise me.

As is almost inevitable in these instances, I had a long fight with depression, which only ended when I was removed from the source of it. For a time, I thought it was behind me, but by my last year of university, I was now struggling with the aftermath PTSD—waking up to the sounds of my screams, those delightful things. More than once, I asked myself, if I must relive my past in my dreams, have I truly escaped? And if there is no escape, even now, what’s the point of staying here?

In spite of all this, I have never seen a therapist, never been prescribed or taken any medications, and have never used any illicit substances. Yes, believe it or not, the Jamaican with dreads has never done weed. So what did I do? One day, I walked into a pet store and bought a pair of guinea pigs. There ended my PTSD—true story. I have kept pets ever since. I will not say those traumatic past experiences do not affect me at all now, but I have moved on, and identify as a sane (as sane as any artist, I suppose!) individual.

I’m telling you these things because what I’m about to say about mental health, mental illness and suicide is likely to piss of a few people. So, best to let you know I’m not writing from the outside. Been there. Done that. Lived to tell the tale. Now, here goes.

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown Nashville


Anthony Bourdain Jesse Boyce Alexis Chateau Johnson Sainvil.jpeg
Photo Credit: Tennessee Tribune & Godigio

In March 2016, my senior business consultant and I flew to Nashville, Tennessee to work on one of his pet projects, which involved one of my clients, the late Jesse Boyce. At the time, there was talk of CNN, but I admittedly didn’t process much of it until I arrived.

Not only had CNN dropped by to discuss an upcoming show with Boyce, but apparently we were on the set of the Nashville episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. I never watched this episode, but if you ever do, you might see me awkwardly trying to avoid the cameras in the background with the rest of Jesse’s admin team.

In any case, the picture above was the keepsake I received a while later. Bourdain is, of course, in the middle up top. To his right is Jesse Boyce. I am just beneath Bourdain at second from the left at the bottom. My senior business consultant, Johnson Sainvil, is second from the right.

I won’t tell any tall tales about my meeting with Bourdain. Frankly, I don’t remember if I even spoke to him. I was bored out of my mind on that set, had barely slept, and was dreaming of my hotel bed. I do, however, remember him as a friendly, charming, and overall happy person. So, when it hit the news this year that he had taken his own life, though I barely knew the man, it seemed completely out-of-character with what I did know of him.

“Madness” is the New Black

Naturally, with the loss of such a strong cultural icon, the internet was astir with commentary. There were, of course, people playing up their association with Bourdain, while others used his death as a platform for mental illness. The first set earned an eye-roll from me, while the second set grated my nerves.

Unfortunately, the second set only began to spread. By the end of the night going into the following day, I could not scroll through my Twitter feed without everyone talking about their mental health issues and how Bourdain’s death was proof of how important it is for the people without mental health problems to check in and be held accountable for the health of their family and friends. This sounds good and well in practice to some, but where are these allegedly mentally sound people who should be responsible for everyone else?

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), only 19 percent of Americans face mental illness, but I could never tell from my daily experiences in the United States. Since I have been in the US, I have yet to meet any American (excluding immigrants and children of immigrants) who did not claim to be suffering from some form of mental illness or the other, or played up a history of it in their family.

I do not doubt for a second that 19 percent of Americans struggle with a legitimate form of mental illness, but I am also convinced it’s the in-thing to be “mad”. Some of you are either lying and making excuses, or the APA needs to adjust its figures. Seriously.

The Relationship Between Suicide and Mental Health

This fascination with mental health in America meant that there were hundreds and thousands of people exploiting Bourdain’s death as a platform for mental illness without even knowing the full details of his case, his life, or his reasons—we still don’t know! You may think me “mad” for saying this, but I don’t believe a person is mentally ill because they send in an early resignation letter to their Maker.

Defining Mental Health

According to the American Psychiatric Association:

Mental Illness…refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior, and distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

Mental illnesses take many forms. Some are fairly mild and only interfere in limited ways with daily life, such as certain phobias (abnormal fears). Other mental health conditions are so severe that a person may need care in a hospital.

Still, if mental illness is the cause of suicide everywhere, no one would take that final step of handing in their early resignation letter for just any old kind of mental illness. No, sir. For that, there is serious mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association:

Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Does this then explain why suicides takes place?

Suicide Rates are Soaring

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the answer is no. What the CDC does point out is that suicide rates have skyrocketed in America from 1999 into 2016, with a national increase of 25 percent.

Photo Credit: Center for Disease Control

The New York Times estimates that suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States and that in the year 2016, twice as many people died by suicide than homicides. Considering the frequency of mass shootings in America, this is a pretty big concern.

So what reasons have the CDC put forward to explain the burgeoning rates of suicide, if not mental health problems? See the chart below.

Photo Credit: Center for Disease Control 

The New York Times adds, “Social isolation, lack of mental health treatment, drug and alcohol abuse and gun ownership are among the factors that contribute to suicide.”

The Verdict

Consider this for a moment. Is someone suffering from a painful terminal illness who wants to put an end to it all, mental ill? Is someone in an abusive relationship who sees no possibility for safe escape and decides to take their own life, mentally ill? Is a mother who gives up her own life in an act of bravery to save her child, mentally ill?

Again, there are so many reasons a person could decide to take their life. It is neither fair to the person nor the memory of them to label them as mentally ill without knowing all the details.

Final Thoughts (No Pun Intended!)

As I’ve said before, Bourdain could very well have been suffering from mental illnesses at the time of his death. He has, in the past, discussed his struggles with addiction and depression, though whether or not these were the catalysts for his decision remain undisclosed.

I did not write this piece to defend him or his mental state, or even specifically for him. I merely want people to stop and consider the facts, before exploiting someone’s death as a platform for their own cause—no matter how benevolent or in need of support that cause may be.

Some may insist that these cases of high-profile suicide provide the opportunity to raise awareness for mental health, anxiety, and depression, even if the facts get blurred in the process. But, as the old proverb goes:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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