Following the recent death of a popular British personality by suicide, there has been an outpouring of emotion on social media. Alongside tributes from the public and celebrities—often captioned with the hashtag be kind—were accusations towards those who were thought to have contributed to her psychological ill health. The sense was that the woman’s mental health had been eroded in part by the British media—partly, no doubt, as a result of criticism she faced following an assault charge filed against her. After the alleged assault, she had fallen from grace in the court of public opinion. Once the news of her death broke, however, all was forgotten and she was presented as a beautiful, tragic victim. As a result—despite the be kind hashtags—a great deal of vitriol was directed at anyone who had ever criticised her. While in some ways a natural response, this reflects a wider, more worrying attitude towards mental wellbeing.
Increasingly, the duty of care for one’s mental health is placed on others within the individual’s life, or on society as a whole. This absolves the individual from responsibility for his own psychological wellbeing, while placing him in a vulnerable and powerless position. It also renders the individual immune from criticism, while redirecting any anger or blame towards external factors.
This is not the first time other people have been blamed for an individual’s suicide. Over the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile suicides, associated with participation in reality TV shows in the UK. After each, the responsibility has been ascribed to the TV programme, the media or the production company. In all cases, however, the victims chose to take part in well-known, long-running shows—which suggests that they would have had at least some awareness of what they were letting themselves in for. While this doesn’t mean that they should have expected to be driven to suicide, did they really play no part in the situation in which they found themselves?
Obviously, the aftermath of a suicide is not an appropriate time to question the actions of the victim, but the same consideration is not owed to the living. Along with the hostility directed towards certain media figures after this weekend’s suicide, there were numerous expressions of concern for other high-profile celebrities (mostly women), who have faced public criticism, including Meghan Markle, Jameela Jamil and Lily Allen. Ironically, these statements were accompanied by the aforementioned be kind hashtag, despite the unpleasantness of many of the messages themselves, and despite the venom dished out on a regular basis by many of the purportedly vulnerable women.
Kindness is a two way street: we can’t demand it of others, without giving it ourselves. While I don’t feel qualified to comment on this most recent case, the kindness displayed by some of the other women who are now considered at risk is chiefly notable for its absence, as a brief Google search of either Allen or Jamil and the word spat will demonstrate.
In addition to these double standards, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what kindness means. While, undoubtedly, some of the comments made on social media are cruel, vindictive or even sadistic, there is a big difference between deliberately trying to hurt others and raising genuine criticisms of their opinions or conduct. People persistently fail to differentiate between constructive or legitimate criticism and cruelty. While nothing can justify cruelty, criticism allows us to challenge our own viewpoints and learn about acceptable behaviour.
Taking control of our own thoughts and behaviour is key to protecting our mental health. If we don’t, we are left feeling that we are merely passive creatures, waiting for bad things to happen to us. Indeed, one of the central tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy (the current gold standard in psychotherapy) is the belief that it is often not external events themselves but our interpretation of those events that leads to our difficulties. This way of thinking is empowering, as it returns control to the individual, who has some agency in how she experiences and responds to external events, rather than simply being their passive victim.
External events include other people’s behaviour, so, within the therapy setting, patients are trained to understand that this is included in the category of things we have no control over. While humans can behave in cruel and thoughtless ways, as adults, we usually understand that we cannot legislate against the worst of human behaviour: all we can do is control our responses to it.
But this responsibility mind-set is not prevalent—despite the fact that cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most effective techniques for treating mental illness. Indeed, in the public arena, people commonly respond in exactly the opposite way. It is unsurprising, then, that we regularly see swathes of angry, aggressive and seemingly unstable people, who seem unable to regulate their behaviour or emotions, or even acknowledge the importance of taking control of their feelings and actions.
While there is some wisdom in the suggestion that we should be kind to others, this is only part of the picture. We should never be cruel; we should be mindful that some people are facing hidden difficulties. However, to be psychologically healthy, we need to appreciate the importance of taking control of our minds and owning our thoughts and behaviour. By making excuses or blaming external events for our problems, we prevent ourselves from taking back our sense of control and self-efficacy. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”