A Letter to Social Media and Google Search Experts: You Don’t Understand Mental Illness (and I Wish You’d Try)

If there’s one thing I learned after a celebrity takes his or her own life, it’s going to social media and seeing that no one understands mental illness.

I’ve been a lifelong sufferer of depression, and not even I myself completely understand what’s going on inside.  Most of us assume it’s more of a choice instead of a disease, but it’s difficult to explain how even our choices under depression feel hopeless and powerless, like walking through a fog that has drained the colors out of everything.  There’s no particular reason it happens.  Mental illness doesn’t primarily come from external causes, but we blame ourselves, and so does most of our world.

My guess is that depression and anxiety and other such illnesses are not sexy enough.  Cancer portrayed by Hollywood has the inverse effect of making you skinny and attractive, and movie-autism gives you special math skills like Rain Man or perfect innocence like Forrest Gump.  It’s not fun watching a grown man just weep for two hours.

There will be no movie for my uncle, who has schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, and will often randomly get on his bike to ride from Florida to Ohio, with beans in his ears to block out the “demonic voices.”  It’s not tailor-made for a fundraiser.

That’s not to take away from any of these illnesses: but it points to our obsession with polishing our pain into a marketable story.

An illness like depression often leads to the inevitable symptom of death by suicide, and because of this, many will mock and sneer.  “They chose to do it, it was selfish.”  But unless you’ve actually been at the verge of this inescapable inner prison, then it will naturally seem over-dramatic and hysterical. No one understands unless it’s them, at the absolute edge of their darkness feeling like there are zero options left.

I understand this urge to criticize the mentally ill.  It’s not visible; it’s not physically tangible.  We inherently grade people based on their accomplishments, but even more, the “beauty” of their brokenness.  It’s an ugly thing.  We accept some diseases and not others.  We celebrate victory over cancer and Ebola and from organ transplants, but not depression, even though they all potentially lead to terminal conditions.

We only take mental illness seriously when it leads to death — but even then, we find such diseases beneath our charity, because we perceive it to be within the victim’s control.

I’ve heard that depression is only a first world problem, and that others starving in third world countries don’t have time for mental illness.  We have the “privilege” and resources to over-think, therefore, it begets depression and anxiety.  I suppose I get this logic, too.  Maybe if I had grown up in a completely different era, with less resources, less shelter, and less opportunities, then I would be forced to approach my illness differently.

The problem is that this is a hypothetical non-sequitur.  I didn’t grow up in a different place with different resources.  I am here now, forced to confront the inside of my own turmoil.  The irony is that having more resources isn’t helping, and access to more information means we’re also smothered by more ridicule.  Regardless, I’m convinced that I’d still be just as afflicted.

Even the teenage girl of the sweet sixteen reality show who throws a fit over her pony has a legitimate problem — except her anger is not about the pony or her possessions, but the constant emptiness that cannot be assuaged by money.  Even “first world problems” must be addressed and not shamed, because they point to a deeper human need for the understanding we long for.

The other issue is that there are blogs, music, and media dedicated to romanticizing death.  If you’re doing this, please stop immediately.  A person genuinely suffering from depression doesn’t wish this upon anyone.  It’s not some lifestyle choice.  To fantasize about death through media actually diminishes the real hurt of other sufferers, and it parodies the very people who need help the most.  I’m a big fan of gloomy art or cynical prose and pained expression, but there’s a point when it begins to glorify such things into a carnival attraction.  You know who you are, and we can see through you.

Suicidal ideations are not a fashion statement for us; it’s not some dress I can put on to look relevant and trendy.  I figure that most of those who worship death are doing so out of privilege and acting out.  It hurts the awareness of the mentally ill by lumping us into a laughable crowd of crybabies.  Please don’t do this, and if you’re actually suffering, then please don’t minimize your own pain this way.

Perhaps the worst place to talk about this is in the church.  I consider myself a Bible-believing Christian, and I have to apologize by saying that the modern church has really screwed this up.  We’ve been saying that you can “break the strongholds” and “claim the promises” and “check unconfessed sin” — as if this is all your fault.  It’s sad because the church can offer such a safe haven for the hurting, but we usually add more burdens instead.  This is antithetical to the Jesus who met us where we are.  He never reduced us to symptoms or formulas, but as whole people who need attention to every facet of our life and spirituality.

The Westernized answers appear to be “placate” or “medicate.”  The Eastern culture is to shame you into change or to ignore that it’s happening. I do believe medicine is helpful and that there are methods to change.  But beyond this, I don’t know.  I can’t presume to speak for all sufferers or all conditions.  I don’t know if we need more words or less.  I can only speak for myself when I say, at the very least, Please hear me.  Please take this seriously.  Please try to understand.  Please do not dismiss me.  And please, please, please acknowledge the complexities of the suffering person. It goes beyond disease and choice; it goes beyond parts and symptoms, towards the whole.

When you do persevere into understanding mental illness, this is actually what it means to love someone: not when they’re at their best, but when they’re pulled through the abyss into their unbearable worst.  It won’t be Hollywood.  It will cost you time, energy, your life — but so does everything.  All we do has a cost, but only loving the unlovable brings healing.  Love, then, has the only cost worth paying.

My only hope is that in our discussions about mental illness, we wouldn’t belittle anyone else for what they’re going through.  We can’t save everyone.  We can’t coddle everyone, either.  But we can prevent more damage by not simplifying the issue.  The issue involves a real person, who cannot be simplified nor just “snap out of it.”  And if you tell a sufferer of mental illness that it’s entirely within their power to get better, then you’re inadvertently taking away their power.

I cannot control when depression hits.  It’s not a “feeling” that I can turn off.  I’ve been on antidepressants before, but there isn’t enough medicine in the world to cure me.  I will live with it for the rest of my life.  This isn’t sexy or fun or made for TV.  It’s absolutely debilitating and devastating.  I have begged God to kill me.  I’ve prayed for a car accident to take my life.  I have sometimes wept all day or slept for fourteen hours.  It’s not pretty.

The only thing I can control despite the overwhelming choke-hold are the little choices each second, to breathe one more time.  It’s not a matter of choosing my way out of illness, but choosing against myself, and sometimes even putting that power in other peoples’ hands.  I’m blessed to know people who don’t pretend to understand, but will not refuse me.  We need that safety.  We need space for dialogue.  If you must be one more voice in the discussion, I hope it’s not yet one more voice we must overcome.  Words alone cannot heal, but they can build bridges for the wounded.

— J.S.


9 thoughts on “A Letter to Social Media and Google Search Experts: You Don’t Understand Mental Illness (and I Wish You’d Try)

  1. I’ve been in the trenches and loved through the messy…I’ve set boundaries and felt guilty about abandoning the front lines of the battle.

    >”Even “first world problems” must be addressed and not shamed, because they point to a deeper human need for the understanding we long for.”

    Excellent point. I wish I would have understood years ago that my ex-husband’s insatiable desire to have the next best thing was a misplaced coping mechanism driving a wedge between us. I waited too late to start learning and understanding about what was really going on.


    1. Yes. I think many of us (including me) can too quickly shame others about spoiled entitlement and upper-class privilege, when in reality, such afflictions only point to the emptiness we all have. Of course those in the third world have it much harder and it’s not an equal comparison. It just seems we withdraw compassion at a certain point because we’re blind to “spiritual needs,” which can be just as desperate as the physical.


  2. Thank you brother for addressing first world problems… I feel like I should be ashamed of my first world problems, but you and another friend have told me that I shouldn’t feel the need to dismiss my problems.

    Great read, as always.


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