A simple Google search can reveal a lot about a person, not to mention what internet search trends might say about a country, a culture, even global issues. Google’s Year in Search 2018 highlights the people, events, and trends that stood out this past year. It’s significant to note that Mac Miller, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain appeared third, fourth, and fifth in Google’s top ten searches for 2018. Spade died by suicide on Jun. 5 of this year, and Bourdain died by suicide on Jun. 8; Miller died of an overdose on Sept. 7. As we look back at the past year, understanding what the public curiosity around these deaths means for breaking stigma around mental illness and substance use is critical.
"When celebrities die by suicide, it affects us all because many of us have had personal relationships with people who have died by suicide," Dr. Julie Cerel, director of doctoral programs at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, and president of the American Association of Suicidology, tells Bustle. "A celebrity's death can trigger [thoughts of] people they knew that died by suicide or the people they're concerned about. [There's a] feeling that if this person who seemingly has it all can end their life, anybody can.” (Cerel notes that while Miller's death was ruled an overdose, not a death by suicide, many of the stigmas that apply to suicide also apply to substance use, and the approach to eradicating both of these issues is similar.)
But, Dr. Cerel explains, in the past year, a vast number of outlets covered this news in ways that destigmatized suicide and substance use, avoided giving details about these deaths, and offered important information about how to find help if readers were experiencing suicidal thoughts or were struggling with substance use themselves.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), language around mental illness and substance use — how we address these issues with our words — can either reinforce or help break stigma. According to a 2014 study published via the National Institute of Health (NIH), pervasive cultural stigmas about mental illness can keep many people from getting the help they need. The study’s authors write that stigma can lead to housing and employment discrimination, family and social rejection, and a “lack of engagement in mental health care and worse treatment outcomes.”
But Dr. Cerel notes that, in recent years, the cultural conversation might be starting to shift towards less stigma, and more empathy and proposed solutions. “Both [suicide and substance use] are taking up the nation's consciousness in a lot of ways that we haven't seen before."
When people are looking for information on these events, Dr. Cerel says, "some of it really still is kind of morbid curiosity," but it's also a moment where stigma can be broken. "For me, it becomes a moment of potential hope that these really high-profile events are being covered in ways that are responsible. It's a chance for people to get that message about getting help."
If Google’s 2018 search findings reveal anything, it’s that supportive conversations — and information — about mental health and substance use are long overdue. Even simply reading more about mental health can help shift the broader, cultural conversation away from stigma and stereotypes, and more towards the positive solutions that so many people are searching for.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.