The unexpected deaths by suicide of well-known celebrities have forced many of us to reflect on the state of our own mental health and those around us. As a mental health clinician, I’m thrilled to see so many public messages and posts encouraging people to “check on the strong ones”-a gentle reminder to acknowledge how easily we can overlook a person’s pain when we fail to look beneath their polished exterior. Perhaps even more powerful are the recent admissions by celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith, who have acknowledged experiencing seasons of emotional darkness despite her successful marriage, fame, and fortune. Many people are speaking out about how they've managed to shine under the spotlight despite feeling shrouded by sadness and depression.
The accumulation of these powerful tragedies challenges us to take a look beyond the glitz and glamour of these famous individual’s lives to understand the emotional distress that they were experiencing, even while engaging in intimate relationships with friends, family, and lovers. The struggles that both celebrities and many among the general population grapple with are in fact similar and more common than we give voice to, despite the silence that sometimes precedes their ultimate decision to end their life. The following are a few explanations for why celebrities suffer in silence and the red flags you should look for in others:
1. Fame and wealth can breed isolation.
The saying “It’s lonely at the top” can be an understatement for some celebrities. Many public figures sacrifice their mental and emotional well being by disguising their pain to protect their public image. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear about a celebrity who has taken to drug or alcohol use, though the cause for such risky behavior is not always clear. Some celebrities abuse these substances to self-medicate, in lieu of trusting trained professionals or loved ones with information that could hurt their public image if leaked to the public. Being unable to trust others with their inner struggles can foster loneliness and isolation that leads to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
How it affects the general population:
You don’t have to be famous to relate to the idea of separating your professional or public life from your personal life. In fact, many individuals are suffering in silence while sleeping most nights next to a committed romantic partner. If you are an introvert or struggle with opening up to others about your pain, it’s time to listen up. Introverts are people who not only prefer to limit their close relationships to a few (if any) people, but also get recharged by spending pockets of time alone. Despite your preference to limit your intimate connections, having a caring community can help reduce negative feelings that can lead to depression and suicide. A community can be constructed to suit your specific needs. The only characteristic that people in your community have to have in common with you is the fact that they believe in supporting your goal to stay healthy and agree to only lend support in times of need. Having a person or people who understand the way you are built and the way your life functions under normal conditions helps them lean in at critical times when something is abnormal or off. It does not mean that they have to hover, smother, or intrude in ways that make you uncomfortable. Your community should be someone you trust, who will respect your privacy, and know how to handle you when you are at your worst, not just your best.
2. Depression is a common but misunderstood condition that celebrities suffer with in silence.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that between 6-10% of the U.S. population is battling with some form of depression. That number may be higher due to underreporting in males. Celebrities are not exempt from suffering from depression, despite the privileges and perks they are afforded. Depression carries a stigma among some people that it is not a serious condition, but rather a sign of personal weakness, which can impact a celebrity who must choose whether or not to admit that they are personally struggling with the illness.
How it affects the general population:
Speaking up about feelings that extend beyond common sadness just might save your life. Depression is a serious condition that typically requires help that extends beyond the average person’s realm of expertise. Try not to feel badly if you are not skilled in assessing, diagnosing, and treating your depression. Your first job is to simply make an effort to understand what depression is and take it seriously. Allowing someone to locate resources that will educate you at a time when you may feel weighed down or unable to do the legwork can be a major help.
The good news is that once you obtain help, full recovery is possible.
Depression doesn’t discriminate. It’s important to take the time to investigate if you see certain signs in yourself or a loved one. We’ve learned that depression can exist among fame, fortune, and close-knit families, hiding in shadows and causing pain despite a person’s best efforts to feel well. If you or a person you know are suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts, there’s help.
Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.