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It’s Not a “Blessing” When Mentally Ill People Die

The tagline of a recent xoJane essay, “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” is, “Some people are so sick, they are beyond help.” The piece has since been removed and replaced with an apology.

Earlier this week, someone I love dearly told me that they want to die by suicide. I have had friends and family members hospitalized for suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, and I have seen that empty look in their eyes when they truly believe that there’s no hope left.

This article is exactly the kind of thing that they’re searching for: Some kind of sign that they’re right; that because they’re sick, they don’t deserve to live and they can’t get better.

There are so many problems with this piece that the only way to really break it down would be to do so line-by-line, deconstructing every word out of the writer’s mouth. According to the Facebook writers community group where I found the piece this morning, the writer originally had a byline; xoJane took it down after the storm of Internet outrage began.

Before I even get to the fact that the writer essentially says that it’s okay that a young woman died, let’s start early on in the essay, where she begins by literally demonizing mentally ill people. There are some dangerous phrases thrown around as she describes Leah*, her former friend, who the writer is careful to distance herself from in her writing. She says about Leah: “the person she became wasn’t really her” and that “it was as if mental illness took demonic possession over her.” She refers to Leah, separated from her mental illness, as “the real Leah.”

These are insidious ways to describe someone who is living with a mental illness. While some mentally ill people have expressed that they are not their mental illness, others say that their mental illness is intrinsically a part of who they are, and cannot be separated. I have PTSD from surviving a rape in college. While most of the time, I refer to myself as a survivor rather than mentally ill because I feel it better describes my relationship with my mental health, it’s still something that does define me, something I can never separate from. 

By calling Leah’s illness a form of “demonic possession” and and acting as though she wasn’t the same person as before, the writer is contributing to the stigma of mental illness. Mental health issues are already strongly stigmatized to the point where people who need help don’t seek it, but this writer has no problem adding to that. The writer also says that Leah “just stopped evolving after high school,” which is dangerous not only to those with mental illnesses, but to those with cognitive disabilities, since this is a common rhetoric used to silence disabled adults. Here the writer is making light of that situation, and writing as though being mentally ill is just a form of immaturity, of not being able to grow up and take responsibility. By discussing in depth how messy Leah’s apartment was, the writer is taking on the perspective that if someone doesn’t fit certain criteria—in this case, criteria she’s making up as she goes along—then they’re aren’t okay, and they’re too ill to be helped.

The writer goes on to discuss Leah’s dating life—or lack thereof—as though a successful dating life is necessary to being seen as a whole person. What about asexual and aromantic people who don’t date out of choice? What about people who haven’t found someone they really connect with yet? Plenty of people choose not to date for years, even for their entire lives, and that’s a valid experience. Plenty of mentally ill people do choose to date, and have fulfilling and happy love lives, too.

Then there’s the part where the writer says, “I don’t judge anyone for becoming a sex worker, but she wasn’t in her right mind to consent,” when talking about Leah’s possible decision to become a sex worker. Not in her right mind to consent? How was that, in any form, for the writer to decide? Was she Leah? Was she a trained medical professional who met with Leah on a regular basis? The writer has no right to decide whether or not Leah was in her “right mind” to consent to anything. It’s a dangerous implication, too, that people with mental illnesses can’t consent, because it takes away their personal freedom to make choices. 

It’s funny that this writer admits all this social media stalking was “voyeurism” into Leah’s life, because that’s exactly what it was. The writer claims to have been Leah’s friend, but there’s no ounce of care or concern for her in these words. She says Leah was “putting unnecessary negative energy into my life” and that her “death was inevitable.” As a rape survivor who has several people close to me who are mentally ill, I get it: Sometimes you need to take care of yourself, and you need to know when to set boundaries if someone else’s mental health is affecting your own. But that’s not the perspective the writer is describing here. The writer never takes the time to empathize with Leah or think about how she feels; she spends the entire essay chastizing Leah for being mentally ill.

The end of this essay is probably the part that infuriates me the most. The writer calls Leah’s life “a tragedy,” saying, “This girl had nothing to live for” and “What would the rest of her life been like? She would have either been institutionalized or a major burden on her family. There was just no way she would have survived on her own.”

The writer takes just a moment to admit that there are some people with severe mental illness who can survive. But that’s not what her essay is about. Her essay ends with a bang, essentially saying that any mentally ill person without a support system is doomed, and that if someone can’t learn to live on their own without support, they aren’t deserving of life, period. 

There are many people who can’t live on their own, many people who need family and friends to support them in some way. Many people do live in institutions, and they’re already at a high risk of being abused by the system. What about elderly people, including those with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive and physical issues? If they need round-the-clock care at a nursing home, does that make them “a major burden”? What about parents who have a severely disabled child who is unable to care for themself? Should that child die, simply because they can’t survive on their own? The writer ends a shameful essay by saying that if someone is in any way a burden on others or needs help and support to survive, that they might as well not. Don’t we all, to some extent, need the support of others to get by? Even those of us who don’t live with illnesses and disabilities sometimes need to count on our friends and family members to help us; we all go through hard times, and we’re all capable of requiring some form of assistance. 

It’s an absolutely shame that this essay was published. I can only think of the people this could potentially hurt, and those are the people who need hope the most right now: People who are currently considering suicide, who need a reason to believe that they’re not a complete burden on everyone else, and that they have something to live for. I can only imagine how they must feel, coming across this essay that tells them that, no, they are just too sick, they can’t be helped and shouldn’t survive. 

In a world where people with mental illnesses already face heavy stigma and difficulty accessing the right treatment, we all need to band together and show a little compassion. I’m going to spend the rest of the day sharing stories by mentally ill people, and not just the happy survival stories, either. I’m going to share #TalkingAboutIt on Twitter, and I’m going to showcase the intersectional voices of people affected by mental health issues to show my support. To show them that, no matter how sick they are, they are always capable of surviving. 
Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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