I lost a close friend to suicide when I was younger. Shelly was a talented dancer, a vivacious beauty and had a wicked sense of fun. She also had bi-polar disorder. Not that many of us really understood what that was at the time. We just knew we loved party-Shelly and found recluse-Shelly really hard to deal with. So we avoided her during those times. And in a particularly bad blend of a 'manic' move to another part of the country followed by a very low low, she took her own life.
I'm not claiming to be an expert on bi-polar or mental illness but one of the most dangerous things about Shelly's condition was that a lot of the time, often in social situations, she could seem not just fine, but great. She was larger than life, brighter than bright, sharper than sharp. It was a deadly foil for the depression that sat just around the corner.
I miss her. The world lost a beauty.
I have been thinking about her a lot with the loss of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Kate Spade's death in particular struck me as especially of our time. Kate Spade, in case you've been living under a rock, built an empire from chirpy, colourful, optimism. Her bags were lined with quotes like "she tucked her coral lipstick away and floated back to the party". She sold an Instagram life: perfect, photogenic, upbeat and immaculately co-ordinated. Here's some of the #mondaymotivation from the Kate Spade NY Instagram page:
Kate Spade's sister was quoted in a newspaper as saying that the family begged her to get help for her depression but she refused because getting treatment was so in opposition to the brand she'd built.
And this brand isn't unique. In fact, it's replicated everywhere. Every second person on social media these days is a #coach or #author #livingtheirbestlife. They post immaculate pictures of themselves or their smoothie ingredients in front of their perfect houses and accompany them with quotes like Kate's.
And, just like Kate, they are hiding something.
Because no human person is #blessed or #sohappy all the time. And, what's worse, when we pretend we are, we not only hurt ourselves by being unable to reach out, connect and get support, we hurt others because we make them feel like freaks and oddities. We shame them.
When someone purporting to be a coach or inspirational public speaker populates their public social media feed only with happy Kate Spade isms, I a) smell a rat and b) get pissed off. Because any #coach should know that humans are social animals and we feed on social comparison. So posting pictures of you in a house than 90% of people can't afford, wearing outfits 70% of people can't fit into, doing shit that 80% of people don't have the wherewithal to do is the least #coach-like thing you can do. It's corrosive.
And we do this in organisations too - the happy 'engaged' people are 'talent', the ones who visibly struggle to maintain permanent optimism are 'drains' or 'blockers' or 'problems'. We tell them so in appraisals. We pretend as leaders that we are just dandy - we don't show the chinks in our armour. We don't talk about the fact that people are overworked, or communication is fractured, or politics is complicated. We pretend it isn't the case. We are #oneteam.
If we really want to address the mental health epidemic in this country (and it is an epidemic - we are second only to the US in terms of the % of people with a mental illness in developed countries) we need to address the way we fetishise happy and make pariahs of sad, angry and anxious. We might want to think about how we discuss 'Emotional Intelligence' - because it suggests there's such a thing as 'Emotional Stupidity' when, lets face it, we can all be emotionally stupid, especially when we are stressed, tired, grieving or depressed. We need to stop framing resilience as a responsibility and start understanding that developing emotional resilience is a highly personal practice that takes support. We need to stop talking about people with mental health problems as if they are 'other'. Stop doing the side-head thing. Stop pretending life and work is #perfect. Stop hiding our vulnerabilities.
The Equality Trust has published research that shows that higher inequality is a key contributor to mental illness in a population, and that social comparison is a key component of this. For as long as we fetishise happy this is a double bind. We look around and kid ourselves that everyone else is not just fine, but #winningatlife. We compare our ups, downs and #meh moments and come off worse. Happy has become a status symbol. And it's as manufactured as the cheekbones on the social media stars who propagate it.