walking up and down

In the aftermath of the suicide of L’Wren Scott, I was not surprised to find the former NYTimes fashion critic writing of her confusion and anger. Successful, independent, teacher, fighter, grit, endurance, warmth; all were among the words used by Cathy Horyn to describe Ms. Scott. It’s the same sort of disbelief that accompanies tragic news of other iconic women. Though she wasn’t suicidal, I recall a cocktail party around the time that Princess Diana’s mental health and marital troubles were being bandied about in the press. People expressed befuddlement that a beautiful, elegant, beloved, educated and well-spoken figure could feel so unlovely and unloved in private. It’s easy to see, hear and be shocked by tragedies that occur in the public eye. However, there are plenty of everyday people among your friends, neighbors, and colleagues who are likely to be walking in the same dark valley.

Meridith Tompkins, MSN, RN, PMHNP-BC is a Nurse Practitioner working in mental health. When asked for her input for this story she said, “I see this so often–people in my office that have so many objective positives and they feel miserable inside. Good job, loving partner, good looks, sometimes I find myself thinking ‘Wow, I bet your friends envy you.’ Then they say they cry themselves to sleep, ruminate over every conversation that day, and have stark visions of a noose flash in their head. Sometimes patients have reasons to be suicidal, but often those reasons are twisted and magnified and clutched with a literal death-grip. The abusive ex-husband lives on in her head forever; the shy boy can’t give way to the successful man. Such a challenge.”

The people about whom Ms. Tompkins speaks are not the notable public figures who populate the headlines. They are everyday people who walk beside us on the streets, sit beside us in offices, or drive their kids to school. You see, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes a grim statistic. They highlight the CDC’s data that “in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), 38,364 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.” Out of millions of Americans perhaps 40,000 or so seems a small number. But the impact is much larger. For each person who succeeds, many more have attempted suicide. For each of those, many more people are affected by the loss. Ironic, as the suicide victim is so likely to feel isolated and alone.

While there are many things held in common by individuals both public and private, what strikes me is how often the same descriptions apply. As if struggles with mental health, depression, and suicide are far removed from those who stand out as extraordinary. I can’t help wondering if the burden of keeping up appearances only adds to the pressure. That must only be further magnified if one lives in the media spotlight. How much more crucial must it feel to keep up the facade of strength when keeping up appearances is essential to holding together one’s livelihood?

Certainly, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, Clinical Psychologist at John’s Hopkins seems to agree. She is herself a survivor of a suicide attempt and successfully lives with Bipolar disorder. She describes her own brush with suicide as being something that quickly enveloped her. Though she had agreed in the past to call upon others for support, in the moment she never reached out at all. Achievements that are enviable to all outward appearances may only be adding to the burdens of those we deem successful.

Perhaps more advocacy should be devoted to educating others. Ms. Horyn expresses her mystification in her elegy to Ms. Scott, and she wonders if she might have done more. She further speculates that others too might have seen signs of cracks in the armor, without ever suspecting the depth of emotional pain Ms. Scott was clearly experiencing.

Outreach centers highlight call centers and crisis lines. Signs may be seen on bridge platforms urging the desperate to see help from such crisis centers. I would submit that perhaps it is more incumbent upon each of us to respond with compassion to those in pain, and even to intervene on their behalf. This is just one of many ways it is up to all of us to be aware of one another and to be each others’ keepers. It may be that in the final moment when emotion turns inward to crush its victim that it leaves the suffering without even the promise of hope to see beyond the walls of today’s deep valley.

AFSP also sponsors fundraising walks similar to those held in the name of other diseases from cancer to muscular dystrophy. If nothing else, this is a way to support survivors and their families and help decrease the stigma of mental illness through education. Chances are your life has been touched by this issue through someone who isn’t a celebrity. Out of the Darkness Walks will be coming up in various locations this spring.

As with prevention in any disease state, education and outreach are key. There are any number of good websites offering information on suicide prevention. The AFSP site linked above is just one. We all must be aware of our friends and family even–and perhaps especially–those who seem to excel. That moment you took to be aware of something small and subtle. That moment you offered a shoulder when someone just seemed a bit down. The time you called to say you were thinking of that person in your life and knew that they were feeling down. Those might be the moments that make a difference.

Kathleen Ronan is a writer and a specialist in meditation for medical applications, a harpist, a bookworm, and a renaissance woman. She is the Assistant Editor at Magnificent Nose.

Photo by Erich Ferdinand, via Flickr


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