How Not to Be an Asshole, or Mental Health Stigma-Busting Begins at Home: A Brief Response to xoJane’s “My Former Friend’s Death was a Blessing”

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I love therapy.

I really do. It’s how I make my living. I sincerely believe that therapy has the power to save lives and transform millions more.

However, there is a huge problem that has recently been hovering over me like a storm cloud at the brink of a desert monsoon.

This is a problem that therapy by itself cannot solve alone.

It’s stigma. Stigma against mental illness translates into prejudiced and unjust treatment for people struggling with potentially life or death issues.

I was not planning on writing this or any blog post today. Really, I wasn’t. Forced to stay home by a nagging ankle injury from my day job, I was content to scroll through my Twitter feed and watch back episodes of Empire and How to Get Away with Murder. I made grand plans to do some of my online trainings I haven’t been able to get to and to end the day sitting with my dog in the sun.

Since I’m lucky enough to follow a number of anti-stigma activists on Twitter, I came across this link:

By the time I had found out about the now notorious xoJane piece entitled, “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing," It had been scrubbed clean from the website with a contrite statement in its place. Therefore, I have not had the opportunity (unfortunately) to read the original piece in its entirety. My statements and observations are based upon an admittedly limited opportunity to explore the original article's content.

According to several individuals who read the original article, the author wrote about the life and death of a former friend who had struggled since high school from Schizoaffective Disorder. Schizoaffective Disorder is a rare but severe mental illness that combines the features of both what is known as a mood-based episode (i.e., sadness, high energy, low energy) and the features of a psychosis (i.e., hearing voices, paranoia, or difficulties carrying out activities of everyday living). Not only did the writer speak of the experience of someone who, due to being decreased, was not able to speak for themselves, but she spoke about her possible  suicide  in savagely curt and deprecatory tones. An article from the UK Independent cited the following from the original piece:

    On analysing Leah's Facebook profile, she wrote: “While most Facebook posts, at least in my feed, are pictures of engagements, weddings, vacations, children, pets and links, her page felt like the diary of a fourteen-year-old girl with an eating disorder from a Lifetime movie circa 1993.”

“This girl had nothing to live for.”(Matt Payton, published May 23, 2016)

I understand that the writer may have had good intentions in mind. I understand that the article may have been written in a hurry, possibly in a sleep deprived state or another state of mind where the level of thoughtfulness and consideration of the impact the content would have on others was not able to be given its due. However, I’m also flabbergasted at the tone-deafness of the piece.

I don’t pretend to have any easy answers. I don’t have any brilliant insights or quick solutions to end stigma.

What I do know is that the words and efforts of every single one of us matter.

The next time you see a Facebook post of a friend or family member who is battling with depression, psychosis, or other demons you may not be immediately aware of, consider this:

  • The fact that they are out of bed may have taken more effort than you have ever had to use towards any goal.

  • They might have woken up and fought with thoughts that told them they were better off if their life was ended. They might be at the computer, on Facebook, looking for any sign that their decision to keep going was the right one to make.

  • Brushing their teeth and going to work in the morning may have been a triumph for them.

  • They may have experienced childhood sexual, physical, or emotional abuse that has exacerbated the particular form of suffering they present with now.

  • If they are posting on Facebook, as the writer above describes, like a “fourteen year old girl...from a Lifetime movie,” as your thoughts of judgment pass through your mind, as thoughts always do, see if you can find a spark of something that feels...better; something that would call you to say to your friend, family member, or other person in your life in a state of suffering:

“Good morning.”

“How are you?”

“I’m glad you made it out of bed today.”

“But I’m also sorry you’re having a hard time. I don’t know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness like you do, but I know what it’s like to be in emotional pain.”

“I’m glad you’re here in the world with us today.”

“Thanks for sharing your picture. I like your lipstick!

“Let me know if you need anything.”

When people are in pain, the first important step to fight mental health stigma and to help them through their suffering is not problem solving, but being with them.

Let us all work towards a world where we can be with each other and support others with the deepest mental and emotional wounds with openness, integrity, and a commitment to a  world where people with mental illness are treated in a straight-forward yet dignified manner and shame and secrecy around mental illness become an artifact of history.


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