Life

How I Cope When The Toxic Conversation Around Celebrity Suicides Triggers My Mental Illness

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When someone famous dies, the first thing we do is go on their social media and hope they’ve posted a statement dispelling the “crazy” rumours. That’s what I did when I heard of the heartbreaking news of Caroline Flack’s passing. Then the group chats start pinging. WhatsApp Messages of disbelief start flooding in. “She was so young.” “Poor thing.” “Does anyone know if it was suicide?” Suicide. That one word that can evoke such a range of emotion. Trashy websites will write the word in CAPITALS to drive engagement, but for some of us, it can trigger something much deeper. It can trigger our own history of suicidal thoughts.

The suicidal headspace can be terrifyingly familiar for those with experiences of depression. Hearing questions like: “How does a person even get to that stage?” and “why didn’t they seek help?” is difficult. Because you’ve been there, you know how depression works. How it has the ability to get you and get you quickly. A slippery, spiralling slope to bleakness. One minute you’re doing fine, and the next, the whole weight of the world presses down on you as you struggle to breathe. You know at one point it could have been you.

The passing of Love Island star Mike Thalassitis, triggered my mental breakdown last year. As a journalist, I wrote about Thalassitis when he was a contestant on Love Island, and saw him at various PR events. A year later I was reporting on his suicide. It was a surreal turn of events, but my job required me to process the heartbreaking and gruesome details of his death. Mentally, it was too much. I struggled to sleep as graphic images started to fill my mind. For weeks, those images would wake me in the middle of the night and I’d lie awake for hours.

One minute you’re doing fine, and the next, the whole weight of the world presses down on you as you struggle to breathe

Then came the intrusive thoughts. “What if you get so depressed again you want to kill yourself?” “Do you want to kill yourself?” “Are you going to kill yourself?” The thoughts got worse, and worse, and worse. I had to take time off work because I couldn't leave my house without thinking I might accidentally jump on a train track or run in front of a car. At one point, I couldn’t even make dinner without thinking my hand would slip and I’d stab myself in the chest. Everything became a danger. Terrified I was losing all sense of control, I had to seek professional help.

Shockingly, my GP brushed my concerns under the carpet, telling me to drink more water and get better sleep. The experience was humiliating. How did a celebrity suicide get me to this sunken place? I felt even more ashamed for reaching out. I was angry. I felt dismissed. I didn’t even bother explaining that sleep is near impossible when your brain is bombarded with images of you killing yourself. I was lucky enough to find a private psychotherapist who quickly identified that I was in fact suffering with OCD, obsessing with intrusive thoughts of dying by suicide.

I now understand why trigger warnings are critical for anyone struggling with mental health issues

Relief washed over me as I finally understood the insides of my head. Turns out constantly engaging in a negative news cycle, with no healthy way of processing or coping with any of the information, was bound to be unsustainable. It took months for me to feel “normal” again because upsetting topics of conversation and any mention of suicide set me off. Slowly, I was able to build myself back up. OCD was a coping mechanism for feeling so overwhelmed and unsafe; mine just manifested in the extreme form of intrusive and disturbing thoughts. I now understand why trigger warnings are critical for anyone struggling with mental health issues.

But we need to have a serious conversation on how we discuss celebrity suicides without sensationalising them. Some websites will include the method in headlines for clicks, even if that means going directly against media standards of suicide reporting. The media cycle around celebrity suicide is toxic and seeks to make money off tragedy. We need to understand the importance of logging off when it gets too much. Do block those pages. Do excuse yourself from triggering conversations around suicide. Do talk to someone if you need to.

The media cycle around celebrity suicide is toxic and seeks to make money off tragedy

Flack was a big part of our lives and her death has been particularly heartbreaking. For years, she endured the media's relentless scrutiny; portrayed as an unlovable rogue who couldn’t hold down a boyfriend. We all witnessed it, wrongly assuming she was “fine”. When she was arrested for common assault and labeled a domestic abuser in December, the online abuse escalated even further. According to The Guardian's analysis, Flack received twice as many negative headlines as positive. Whether guilty or not, Flack became victim to a brutal trial by media, months before the real trial was set to take place. Death by suicide is the saddest of stories, so give yourself the space to grieve.

If you are finding the news upsetting or triggering, there is expert advice on what to do available here.

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.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can also call the mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393.