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Life How celebrity suicide discourse harms those battling suicidal thoughts

Oct. 6, 2021

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to cease to exist. But I’ve also been too afraid to talk about these feelings. I’ve never uttered the words “I'm suicidal” out loud except to a friend during a random day-drinking session. They reacted the way anyone would if you sprang something like that on them while they were drunk out of their mind—by hugging me tight and saying they were there for me. I see a therapist almost every week to keep other mental health issues in check, but the s-word has never managed to make an appearance. 

Suicide is still largely taboo, not often considered a topic you’d raise at the dinner table (or anywhere for that matter). Anyone even considering suicide, regardless of their situation, is branded selfish and inconsiderate. Subsequently, I’ve come to wonder if I’m being selfish, especially as someone with a roof over her head and money to pay for food. And because conversations about suicide are hushed to begin with, I’ve often wondered if there are others who feel like me, and if I even belong within this discourse since I’m perhaps not as serious about it as others.

So when celebrities like Meghan Markle, with much more privilege than me and with everything to lose, talk about how they’ve contemplated suicide, in some small way, I feel seen. “I knew that if I didn’t say it, then I would do it. I just didn’t want to be alive anymore—and that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought,” Markle said in her recent interview with Oprah.

It’s incredibly difficult to talk about these topics in public, especially since those who do are often shunned, distrusted, or silenced. For a celebrity to lead by example and publicize her struggles takes a great amount of courage, and can go a long way in making people like me—who have been silent about their suicidal thoughts for years—realize that we’re not alone; that our struggles, like everyone else’s, are valid.

Regardless of her platform, it couldn’t have been easy for Markle, who also spoke about the mistreatment and racism doled out to her by the British royal family and the press, to open up about her struggles. People of color are also often conditioned to put up a strong front and “keep it together,” which makes them reconsider ever speaking up about injustice. It must have been even more difficult, then, to see some people on public platforms spew vitriol against her vulnerable confessions. 

Continuing his own history of admonishing Markle, British TV host Piers Morgan said on his show that he didn’t believe her claims of having been suicidal. Social media was abuzz with people hinting that she lied about her struggles with suicidal ideation simply for attention, or to further her personal vendetta against the royal family. 

Here’s the thing: Markle is probably not going to read these tweets or Facebook comments claiming she’s lying, but people like me, who struggle with such thoughts every single day, will. And we will feel shittier about ourselves, having internalized the belief that suicide is selfish and attention-seeking. 

If it was received well, Markle’s admission of her own struggle could have inspired many who struggle in silence to ask for help. A 2020 study revealed that when a celebrity opens up about a struggle with their mental health, the number of common people who follow suit is likely to increase. Seeing public figures like Markle being met with harmful reactions such as disbelief and blame only further shames common people into reconsidering speaking up about their struggles with suicidal thoughts.

Markle’s case isn’t the first incident of people being insensitive toward celebrity suicide, either. Last year, a popular Bollywood actor was found dead in his apartment, having allegedly died by suicide. His death was expected to spark a much-needed conversation about mental health in India, a country where stigma toward the mentally ill is still widespread. Instead, it snowballed into his fans and family claiming he seemed “too happy” to ever end his life, and “too strong” to be depressed, hinting that there were other causes behind his death. These claims deny him respect and sensitivity toward his struggle even in death. Moreover, the bizarre conspiracy theories about the event that continue to run wild on social media only reinforce the many reasons he must have had to never speak up about what he was going through when he still had the chance. 

Such reactions to celebrity deaths by suicide also make people battling suicidal thoughts feel like no one is going to believe them, regardless of whether or not they choose to end their lives. What could’ve been a starting point for sensitive discourse regarding silent victims of suicidal ideation has turned into a nightmare. In the months following his death, rife with sensationalized news coverage and harmful public claims about mental health, I often wondered if people would ever take my feelings seriously when they continued to invalidate his.

Celebrities wield a great degree of power and influence. After the 2018 deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, The Wall Street Journal reported that calls to suicide hotlines spiked by 25%. Although difficult, it’s important for celebrities to broach these sensitive issues, because it will mobilize common people and potentially change their lives for the better. But any public figure who has seen the reactions to Markle’s revelations is now more likely to keep their struggle under wraps, and either suffer silently or die having never spoken about it. Shaming celebrities into staying silent about mental illness is only going to further alienate people like me.

Instead of shutting celebrities down when they try to let us into their darkest moments of struggle, we should consider the impact our reactions can have and simply listen with sensitivity. By doing so, we could be giving many others who are watching, and struggling, a reason to give their own lives a chance.