Death by public opinion

The Mental Health Angle

I wrote recently on Dr Hestia Thomas, who passed on a few weeks ago, in sudden and unusual circumstances.

My thrust in that post (link below) was the danger of trial by social media. But another danger worries me: our unwittingly dangerous attitudes to mental health issues.

First, though, I think it’s important to repeat: this is NOT about HOW she died, whether by suicide or by violence or in any other way. Nothing at all. Rather, it’s ENTIRELY about how we responded to the possibility that there might be mental health issues involved. Even if her untimely passing turns out completely unrelated to mental illness, wouldn’t lessen the danger of much of the public response.

An example of the kind of response I found troubling: “How could she have been mentally ill or depressed? She looked so happy! She just wasn’t the type to think of suicide!”

Okay, so, can we just get this out of the way? Repeat after me: SUICIDE HAS NO TYPE.

Don’t. Really, just don’t.

(Go ahead, say it again. Whisper it to yourself until it sinks in. Until you next hear something like that and find yourself reacting: countering it before you realise what you’re doing. Which would be super cool, by the way.)

And you know the problem with that idea? It’s what it implies. The idea that there’s a type of person who takes their lives implies that we’d have known if she was. But suicide is devilishly hard to predict. And all the risk factors we know don’t help predict with any confidence who’ll try to take their lives.

And that a person “seemed happy”? Well, let’s just say it’s amazing how much we can SEEM stuff we’re not.

It ties into a larger misconception though: the misconception that mental illness is obvious. It’s not. It’s SO not. Just trust me on this one: I’ve seen people with mental illness for YEARS and their spouses, their kids didn’t even know. Educated people o.

And that’s exactly the problem, right there. As long as we think mental illness is obvious, we’ll keep missing it. Right under our noses. I mean, it’s almost like, the worst thing a person could do is get a mental illness that leaves them looking okay, because if they don’t totally freak people out, nobody would even bother getting them help.


We can do better. We MUST do better.

Here’s part one of my thoughts on this.

And here’s a thoughtful post on the ethics of information sharing, posted on Facebook by another medical doctor.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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