The last few weeks saw the tragic loss to suicide of two notable icons in the fields of food and fashion, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain; though I knew neither personally, both lives spoke to me. Anthony, from my first mind-blowing read of Kitchen Confidential and his future forays into the exotic, and Kate, for her grit, determination, confidence (forced or otherwise) and style. I am still feeling the pangs of futility that they will not be here to further contribute to our culture, let alone the unimaginable pain for their families and friends.
But I am also struck by the enormous and continued lack of real information and understanding of mental illness. In the past few weeks, in addition to the heartfelt and true sympathies and wishes on social media, I’ve been stunned and often incensed by several other streams where well-meaning people offer platitudes for the masses, such as ‘we all have flaws’, ‘we all get down sometimes’, and ‘everyone gets sad’. Really??? One comment in particular told readers that ‘anyone could call her’ if they were ‘blue’ and she would take a walk with them and provide friendship. Again, I know this is well-meaning. But its also pompous. How powerful are you? This would be like calling you to ask if you are free to walk someone through their cancer. Or diabetes. Or heart attack.
There is help for clinical depression: intense therapy, medication, support from family and friends. What isn’t helpful is minimizing the chemical and physical components that make depression and anxiety as painful and real as cancer, diabetes, or a heart attack. What isn’t helpful is equating it with a case of the blues, which only makes the sufferer wonder why they are even more flawed for not being able to handle what others seem to so easily. For you to do that is truly unbalanced, in fact, crazy. By not acknowledging the depth of the physical component, by thinking that a reminder that ‘we all get down sometimes’ will be helpful, you actually do damage. It’s called mental illness because that’s what it is; the person is ill, not sad. They have a chemical imbalance, just like hyper-multiplying cells, just like uber glucose reactions, just like plaque in the veins. Don’t make them feel ashamed because you can’t see the tumor or the scan or the blood sugar levels. Treatment should be constant and combined. And tweaked. Sometimes an inpatient stay is essential. Certainly ongoing monitoring. Just like chemo. Just like insulin shots. Just like EKG’s.
Most people who commit suicide simply want a relief from pain. You could understand that with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) or a brain tumor. Mental illness feels as painful. The very sad part is that mental illness, unlike ALS, can get better, and many times patients who attempt suicide and don’t succeed are relieved that they didn’t and do get better. Not always. Sometimes the disease twists the the thought processes of the brain and reality checks are missing or skewed. The very parts of the brain needed for rational thought and decision-making and hope have been physically compromised, a baffling and torturous scenario for the individual and their loved ones. People may be under the totally false impression that if they are no longer here their loved ones would be better off. And that is why intense therapy with highly trained professionals who treat their patients therapeutically and pharmacologically are needed.
I like to think I help people by providing experiential therapy, which has been known to positively impact many features of mental illness. Cooking Therapy can be a deeply self-reflective experience and a wonderful addition to a self-reflective journey, but there is only one recipe for treating the kind of depression that’s taken so many of our celebrated icons and personal loved ones. Take the stigma out of the illness, understand the chemical component, and allow people to freely access covered mental health services and medications, and the length of treatment they need. Then take a walk with them and be there for them and assure them that they’re not alone. Treat the illness as an illness, just as you would with a patient with cancer, diabetes, or a heart attack.