Opinion: Celebrity suicides spotlight larger issues

SDN Executive Editor Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

When mental illness and suicide impacts the rich and famous, we as media consumers take notice.

One of the first news events I vividly remember, after all, was the suicide of Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain in 1994. Suicide, especially when celebrities are involved, sticks in our memories because of the questions left in the wake and how it humanizes those we often put on pedestals.

This week, the world lost two titans of stardom to suicide: Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Their untimely deaths sent shock waves through the pop culture consciousness and resurrected an oft-used dialogue focusing on mental health and addiction.

We act surprised that such beautiful and successful people could reach that point, even when the same problems are within arm’s reach - affecting our children, our neighbors and possibly even ourselves.

But will their deaths make a difference as it relates to putting a long-term spotlight on suicide? That’s yet to be seen.

Any mental health expert will tell you that depression, which is one of the most prevalent factors that can lead to suicide, is not prejudice.

Depression affects people of all shapes, colors and beliefs and in many ways is no better understood today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. While it is more easily diagnosed and treated, suicide rates continue to climb across the country, which underscores an obvious gulf separating those suffering and those who can do something about it.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide rates in Mississippi increased 17.8 percent from 1999 to 2016, which is still much lower than the national average increase of 25.4. However, this figure is 17.8 percent higher than it should be in Mississippi.

With the lack of beds and available resources for inpatient care in a poverty-stricken state like Mississippi, it can seem hopeless for many seeking treatment, especially those who committed a crime as a result of a mental illness or drug addiction. They become a product of an underfunded revolving-door system incapable of providing them the individualized care they need to be a productive member of society.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month, but it seemed to come and go with little fanfare - far removed from the widespread publicity of American Heart Month in February or Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. This is not to shortchange the importance of raising awareness for those causes, but mental health seems to remain on the fringes of public consideration and is a problem that has far-reaching consequences when left unattended.

And with no magic wand to address an issue that each state, county and municipality handles differently, most don’t even attempt to start the dialogue.

So what’s at stake? Our communities.

Just last spring, Starkville mourned the tragic death of 12-year-old Mariah Isaacs, who took her own life. The suicide of this young girl turned the community upside down for a brief time, spurring angry and emotional crowds of people to call for police investigations into the kids or people who drove her to the point of taking her own life.

The police contributed to the hysteria, telling a crowd of people at a candlelight vigil that the people responsible would be brought to justice. Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s hearts were in the right place when it came to wanting justice for Mariah, but apart from nearly sparking a witch-hunt, what has been accomplished since her death? What do we have to show for it?

Are those responsible any closer to being brought to justice or have we created a productive dialogue to prevent this from happening again?

And did we not learn anything from this dark point in our city’s history? It honestly seems like a few weeks after her death, we as a community hit the reset button and went back to our everyday lives.

The reality is unchanged, though. We have people of all ages who struggle every single day, yet we as communities across the country can’t seem to agree on what to do about it. What’s more, it’s often easier to sweep these issues under the rug than to look inward and consider how we as a society are complicit.

Luckily, in our part of Mississippi, we do have valuable resources such as Community Counseling Services, that offer a wide-range of options to provide support for people suffering from depression, addiction or other factors that can lead to suicide.

In my novice opinion, when someone has the urge to commit suicide, it means we have failed them as friends, a community and a society as a whole because we either didn’t take the time to notice the signs, or didn’t put in the effort to get them the help that they so desperately needed.

For those in need of help, or if you think a loved one may be suicidal, call the Contact Helpline locally at 662-328-0200 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-328-0200.

Most importantly, take time every day to be considerate of others and kind to the people you encounter. Call up a friend you may not have talked to in a while. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but I’m a believer that just a little bit of compassion and sincerity could be the thread that holds someone up from falling into the abyss.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the newspaper, or its staff.