Please Stay: The Myth of Bravery

March 11, 2019

If I had a dollar for every time I have seen others preaching that mental illnesses should be taken as seriously as physical ones, I would perhaps be able to afford the lifelong quality treatment often required to alleviate symptoms of such illnesses.

While the statement is true, the actions and words of those claiming to want to erase the stigma of mental illness are unknowingly adding to it by marketing positivity and recovery as a choice. This harmful view is especially prevalent to views on suicide.

Though I have always had a funny feeling about anti-suicide marketing, an upcoming event at my former high school solidified why. The school is hosting a choir concert as part of a suicide awareness campaign called “Please Stay.” During this campaign, students have been encouraged to speak up about their struggles with mental illness on social media, and the choir director has mentioned songs such as “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down,” which will be performed at the concert this coming Sunday. The song, he said, will be accompanied by sign language that says “No amount of self hate can control me and no matter how clouded the sky is, I’m not going to lay down/I’m going to beat this.” Though this message is given with good intentions, I believe its undertones surrounding choice are harmful. This is not to say that the encouragement of positivity towards those battling mental illnesses is unhelpful or unwarranted, as support can be life changing for those struggling to do the work of treating their mental illnesses.

This notion of choice and power is not unique to beliefs surrounding mental illness. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, another friend who had recently recovered warned her that the world was filled with messages about being strong and brave in the face of cancer treatment, and that she would get through it if she tried hard enough. The messages were unhelpful and what helped her live was the medical treatment she sought out immediately. She survived cancer. Some are not so lucky.

It seems obvious that this attitude is ridiculous in relation to cancer. So, if mental illnesses truly should be treated the same as physical ones, the notions of persistence and bravery should not be the primary answer. Like physical illnesses, those battling mental illnesses need timely professional treatment. And when someone loses the battle and ends their life—and their suffering—it is seen as a choice. In my high school’s campaign, students are encouraged to be kind to each other—a nice idea, but also harmful because no one can ultimately prevent someone from committing suicide, and the pressure is harmful to everyone. If someone loses a battle with cancer and dies, the reason is not that they weren’t strong or positive enough—it is simply because the disease killed them. I do not believe that suicide is much different, and even choose to use the phrase “died from suicide.”

It is often said that suicide is preventable. While professional help can certainly prevent it to a certain degree, just as chemotherapy and radiation can help cancer, sometimes the disease is too powerful. Or, maybe it was caught too late—or not at all. 

Last week in the New Yorker, an article by Donald Antrim called “Everywhere and Nowhere: A Journey Through Suicide” caught my eye. Antrim explains suicide as a journey, or a culmination of many factors rather than a single choice. He writes, “I knew that I would die. I felt that I had been dying all my life,” when remembering a time he contemplated suicide. The article is a great representation of those who have attempted or have otherwise been affected by suicide, as well as a great educational tool. I encourage anyone who believes suicide is a choice to read it.

So, the answer? Mental illnesses and suicide must not be marketed as choices. Instead of instigating touchy-feely campaigns (also common with bullying) that students will forget about in a month, high schools should work to make real change in the lives of those affected by mental illnesses such as hiring psychologists, making mental health care available and accessible, and educating staff members on how to look for warning signs of suicide and measures they can take in such cases. The campaign has surely brought students together and shown empathy. It’s good, but that’s not all it takes.

Please Stay: The Myth of Bravery was published on March 11, 2019 in Opinions

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