TW: Mention of Suicide
In Dave Chappelle’s 2019 special Sticks & Stones, he opens with a joke about Anthony Bourdain taking his own life, despite having the greatest job in the world. He then explains a story about a friend who got into an ivy league school to study law but lost everything after an untimely divorce and now works at Foot Locker. The punchline was that Chappelle’s friend never once thought about taking his own life (despite Chappelle even suggesting it to him). Regardless of the joke’s content or the shock it is meant to provoke, the one thing that is glaringly missing from this bit is its abject lesson: He fails to mention that this is not simply a problem of “no one having a perfect life” but rather that there is nothing at the top to save us.
Stephen “tWitch” Boss took his own life earlier this month. Boss was an actor, TV producer, and all around established celebrity with a growing résumé. Dancing was what brought Boss into the spotlight and propelled him into a short life of stardom. His most notable credit being the DJ and co-host of The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
The outpouring of support for Boss’s family and those suffering among us has been prevalent all over social media. Unfortunately with that support comes several misunderstandings and misrecognitions of what suicide is and suicidality looks like.
For Bourdain, Kate Spade, Jak Knight, Chris Cornell, Don Cornelius (and the list goes on), fame, wealth, and riches offered no escape from the social reality which tries to suppress the things we actually struggle with everyday. Getting to the top, having the “greatest job in the world,” and having financial security are not substitutes for nor relieves us of what our labor costs us (let alone what it doesn’t give back) – what it took to get to the top, what wealth and security really mean for us, etc. The story we are sold about “working hard to succeed,” taking risks, and moving up (corporate) ladders falls apart in the face of these tragedies.
What does having a dream job mean if it cannot save us from ourselves? What does it mean to even have a perfect life? Is it success or is it not “suffering in silence?” And why are these two conflated as one in the same? Does this mean a “quiet mind” is only for the successful? It would appear not with the above examples but there is much more to explore here.
It’s a Matter of Worth
Often questions similar to “have you been having thoughts of worthlessness or that you would be better off dead?” pop up in mental health questionnaires or, after a celebrity suicide, we see social media posts saying “if you’re feeling worthless, just know that you matter.” We all seem to understand the idea of worth yet it remains so volatile when we consider it for ourselves. Whether at work or in the eyes of the state or socially, we tend to confront our worth every single day.
For example, if we think of worth in terms of value, a company’s valuation of us is considerably close to Marx’s notion of labor-time. In fact, in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the idea of estranged labor as the effort we put into creating commodities which are sold by the companies we work for but remain alien to us the workers. Part of the problem of any job is that, over time, that particular labor is devalued through “deskilling” the labor itself, which means that the job becomes less specialized or falls into the realm of unskilled labor as it becomes more common or less valuable in the market. Because the products we create are estranged from us, it is our labor that is our commodity, and through devaluing labor our value decreases. This is reflected in both our wages and effort. However, what Marx’s notion misses is that
It is not simply that we appear as the current market’s valuation of our labor – i.e. the overall worth of our effort in the market – but determined by (and thus reduced to) how much time a job or company takes from us, sometimes “free of charge” as it were. Whether being asked to come in early or stay late, putting in extra time for longer commutes or public transit, or even going to therapy to ensure we can make it into work, our value – the form of our (marketable, personal) worth – is always less than our wages. Consider how a company’s view of our value directly impacts how much time we will have for the things we personally value outside of work. However, what is missing here but is added later from Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism is that we take our worth to be an external object that exists outside of the market, outside of the complex social interactions of people. Thus we tend to take what happens to our worth all too personally – we internalize the effects of exploitative labor as how we really are.
Talking about one’s worth is rarely a direct conversation. More often than not we talk to one another about our lives or complain about our jobs or voice anxieties over debt; however, even if we may suspect these things tie into one’s view of oneself, the connection is virtual – it feels unreal. In an analogous way, we can view the current ideology of mental health: On the one hand, it’s fair game for celebrities to talk about their (past) struggles with depression, addiction, eating disorders, etc. Because celebrities can openly talk about the antidepressants they’re on, we feel comfortable doing so as well. Depression, stress, and anxiety are no longer intolerable topics to be openly spoken of. On the other hand, current addictions, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and even suicidality are topics meant to be tackled “behind closed doors” and solely with one’s doctor. This leaves one wondering: Is this the destigmatization we were fighting for? We can even go a step further and take note that effects of not (socially, familially, personally) addressing mental illness are often taken as the primary cause of one’s individual state of health – for example, the short-circuit that exists between mental illness and being homeless. Even studies are beginning to show the supposed separation of mental health from mental illness. The connection between so-called mental health and mental illness has become virtual.
We can see this mental health ideology at work in the role of police brutality today. On the side of the coin, we have the phenomenon of suicide-by-cop; and on the other, there is the recent uptick in police murdering “suspects” on mental health calls. What’s most concerning here is that the former acts to close the loop of this rise in deaths at the hands of police, as it is properly the effect of police brutality and the use of excessive force – i.e. someone who is suicidal but doesn’t want to take their own life knows that provoking an officer will result in being shot – but the latter, which once was a “cause” in this cycle – insofar as police are now “aware” that mentally ill individuals they are responding to may be a threat to their lives – now acts as a further effect of the former. This is all to say that the logic has doubled back on itself and, whereas suicide-by-cop was once the active participation of someone wanting to end their life, it is now the justified reason for excessive police force. Making a call to the police for a so-called mental health crisis immediately inflates the moment to expected violence, which ensures there is a “suspect” when they arrive on scene. This perversion of a mentally ill “suspect” into an immanently violent Other has reductive effects on worth as well, especially after the firing has started.
Also, it’s important to note that as more and more cities develop policing alternatives and unarmed response teams for mental health calls, the minimal difference between a police officer or a trained mental health professional responding is when that call is “non-violent.” Although this does reduce the amount of police intervention, the thing that gets overlooked here is the problem of mental health in general: Isn’t there something inherently violent, both subjectively and objectively, in mental health crises? From the subjective standpoint, do mental illnesses not enact some form of violence over our “free” selves, sometimes exploding in public spaces like schools and workplaces? From being suicidal to having homicidal tendencies to major depression to schizophrenia, there is a level of violence that cannot be fully accounted for in language – which is to say there is always some level of violence which can at least appear as externally threatening to another. From the objective point of view, there are at least two major factors to consider here: 1) Mental care is not affordable for (and thus not available to) everyone; and 2) this further obfuscates mental illness by splitting the conversation into violent and non-violent mental health situations, immediately equating “mental illness” to “inherently violent.”
Wages, the overall market value, the reductive worth we extract from our jobs, and even police violence are not all that determines personal worth, though.
The Matter of Mattering
Although we are inundated with messages that we “matter” whenever Suicide Awareness Month rolls around or when someone of some fame takes their own life; the misgiving of such a message is that it takes itself too seriously. That is to say that such messages take on the role of counter-evidence, but what if the evidence for why we think we don’t matter is much more than not hearing that we simply matter? What if the state makes it clear that we matter less because of our skin color or what we’re able to do? What if the real evidence of how much we matter comes from the collective actions and words of those who believe we are deviants, don’t work hard enough, are lazy, are crazy and could snap at any second, etc.?
Such messages that we “matter” are, of course, not meant to be sufficient on their own; however, they are also ideology at its most basic definition, which is precisely the problem to begin with. When we hear claims that “hard work pays off” or “we have no one to blame but ourselves for failure,” we understand them to be ideological arguments that stem from an era of neoliberalism but unmasking these arguments as ideology does not take away their power. In fact, we tend to live by them regardless of whether we believe them or not. Likewise, when racist messages dominate the airwaves, the effects of those messages are not only found in violent outbursts against people, but a reflection of that very violence back into the ideology itself. For example, despite how much trans rights issues are in the national spotlight, the rates of deadly violence tend to still be increasing.
This violence gets reinscribed back into the narrative that already viewed trans people as sick perverts or deviants and now adds that they are expendable objects and that their deaths are part of the normal functioning of society. This adds a paradoxical dimension to the narrative that is both heavily indifferent and participatory. On the one hand, it should come as no surprise that because this violence is handled so indifferently that trans youth have shockingly high rates of suicide and that 82% of trans individuals have considered suicide. On the other hand, trans people experience much higher rates of sexual assault often by those who “officially” hate them – i.e. police, transphobes, etc. Even focusing just on the workplace, trans people are often denied employment or given less visible or back-of-the-house jobs which tend to pay less than their counterparts.
Similarly, this is why Native Americans, Black populations, and the impoverished have some of the highest suicide rates in this country.
If suicide is to be a matter of mattering, then the evidence to the contrary must begin with the social – the effort needs to be a political one, not a personal one. Ideology cannot be subdued by changes to belief but from changes in practice first.
Reaching Out vs. Being Reached Out To
Back in 2018, after Bourdain and Spade’s deaths and the expected increase in social media posts imploring those “suffering” to reach out when we’re feeling suicidal, a wave of pushback started to appear: Many started to counter-argue that it wasn’t on us to reach out for help but for others to check-in on us. The practice of checking-in with those who have (if only temporarily) withdrawn socially or are at-risk is becoming very common. However, does this really change the coordinates of our current mental health (or mental care) crisis?
Shifting the responsibility of who is to check-in with who does little more than put us right back at the beginning of the same problem with which we started. The onus is no longer on those “suffering in silence” but on a presupposed (and consistent) healthy Other, who now shoulders the anxiety of impossible questions like “when should I check-in?” and “how often is often enough?” Not only are these “healthier” people just as susceptible to the anxiety, stresses, and even suicidal ideation that we are “suffering” from but this responsibility is already felt by them, even if it’s never spoken.
Consider how common feelings of guilt or being at fault over not having done enough are after someone takes their own life. Also consider how mental health professionals and clinicians have regular meetings with other psychologists to ensure their own health; or how common burnout is for crisis line workers. We also saw something similar during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when health professional burnout could no longer be hidden and often had suicidal results. Such an examples illustrate how such responsibility – if only the feeling of responsibility – is already inscribed into the problem of suicide and that inverting the role of reaching out/checking-in is not sustainable, not without a complex structure to ensure everyone involved has some sort of therapeutic outlet.
Proper mental care is certainly not available to everyone and this is near the root of the issue to begin with, but the effort of a communal care strategy, for now, ought to be to help those receive proper care that need it instead of acting as a stand-in for it.
A Shift in Viewing Suicide
Although it often feels like it when addressing suicide, all is not lost. First, one of the biggest problems for how we talk about suicide is in how we anticipate death. Suicide is something we actively go through. It is the thing that often refers to something we are currently living with or through – i.e. being a survivor of suicide, regretting a suicide attempt, feeling suicidal. “Suicidal” is even an adjective that can only ever apply to something living. Suicide is a living process and not necessarily an end. For this reason, we must reconsider how we tend to fetishize one’s cause of death when we consider suicide. Whether we know of the means to how they took their life or only know their death was a suicide, focusing solely on this cause of death betrays a certain hopelessness we have in the cause(s) for living. This focus on the cause of death effectively reduces life to a single moment frozen in time. Rather than “how did they die?” we need to be asking “what caused them to keep on going?” in order to reimagine suicidality.
Second, the very real phenomenon that is burnout is a point of rupture in the current market system. Burnout has primarily been a problem for those in so-called unskilled roles or less visible jobs, such as lower paid health and in-home care positions; however, it is affecting more and more people across various industries. Companies, HR departments, and managers have no idea how to “fix” or subsume burnout and, what’s more, is that it cannot be covered up like it once was. To truly address burnout would require a radical shift in relations between people. Although burnout tends to affect feelings of hopelessness, it is an important moment that remains open – a wound in capitalist relations that cannot seem to heal itself. Burnout has already proven to be a focal point of organizing throughout history.
It is quite clear that suicide, at the personal level, is not universal. There are several, varied reasons for what brings someone to the end of their rope. This is why it is imperative that we focus on the form of suicide – by this, I mean the precise way we feel worth, how we consume to avoid depression, the costs of treating mental illness, etc. While the headlines that dominate most media outlets read about how younger generations don’t want to work, how another part of the Earth has died, how politically charged hate has erupted in violence, how more money is going to the military instead of toward housing or debt, how more and more public sources of food and water are poisoned, etc. It cannot be a shock to us any longer that suicide rates are increasing, that someone we know is closer to the end than we realize. Unless we begin seeing this as a political problem, suicide will come for all of us in the morning.
It is against this violent background of today which we must take Huey P. Newton’s notion of the revolutionary suicide to heart: “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.”
Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit. He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.