Telling a Million People You Want to Kill Yourself
What happens when you break through the social-media friendly way of discussing mental health?
Molly Lipson is a writer and community organizer from the UK.
In an Instagram post shared towards the end of 2021, British actor Joe Tracini, known for his role in the popular soap Hollyoaks, opens by stating that he’s been thinking about killing himself. Immediately, the screen splits and we see two Joes, one a visual representation of his borderline personality disorder (BPD), the other the original Joe. The BPD Joe is loud, obnoxious and taunting. He encourages the other Joe to follow through on his suicidal plan, but original Joe pushes back.
To the camera he says, “Thinking about something is not the same as doing something. And I don’t want to kill myself, and if I tell you that I’m thinking about it, I can’t [do it]. I know it’s a hard thing to hear, and it’s a hard thing to say, but I’m certain that my family would rather me tell somebody that I’m thinking about killing myself than try [it].”
This kind of suicidal ideation is a regular element of Tracini’s day-to-day life. “The only thing saving me every day is talking about it,” he tells me. On the surface, “talking about it” aligns with the popular approach to tackling mental health that we’ve been hearing more and more over the last decade—open up, lose the stigma, let’s talk. The difference, though, is that Tracini doesn’t speak about mental illness in the way we’re used to. His bluntness is unique; it cuts through the corporate-friendly version of mental health language that has been adopted by everyone from TikTok psychologists to Lululemon like a Metallica song at a Bon Iver gig.
Everywhere that mental health is now discussed—across social media, on billboards, in celebrity interviews and corporate digital campaigns—its language is what Tracini describes as “cotton wool-y,” full of platitudes and trite euphemisms. Take the hashtag campaigns popularized by charities and brands, like #oktosay (the Royal family-endorsed Heads Together campaign) or #HereForYou (Instagram). These tedious hashtags are prime examples of the BuzzFeedification and memeification of mental health and wellbeing that package it as something digestible, relatable and solvable.
Though sometimes well-meaning, such surface-level mental health conversations could actually do more harm than good. For someone living with mental illness to share that they’re seriously unwell, even thinking of taking their life, and the response to be, try self-care, is likely to make them feel misunderstood, unheard and dismissed. Mentally unwell people don’t think or talk about their health in these corporate-friendly terms. The reality of mental illness is much more complex, nuanced, and messy.
Tracini’s own approach stands in harsh juxtaposition to all this. He puts a radically different spin on self-care. “My job is to not fucking die every day. And that means that the only person I can sort out is me.” His stinging honesty overshadows the soulless corporate-washing we’re used to hearing, allowing his audience to breathe a long-held sigh of relief: finally, someone is saying it as it is.
This may also be life-saving. One comment underneath his video reads: “I also battle with driving into the central reservation on every motorway journey. You make me laugh and feel normal.” Another says: “This is the first year that I have realised I want to live…watching this has left me in tears for the right reasons because of the hope of there being a tomorrow and wanting to show up for it.” These responses are just a few of thousands—people seem to have found companionship and solace in Tracini’s videos that they haven’t found elsewhere. In an online world filled with vague aphorisms and PR-tested statements about mental health, people see in Tracini’s videos a mirror to what their own mental states actually feel like.
“[My BPD] is not immediately fixable,” Tracini says. “We're never going to get rid of mental illness. All we can do is say, let's find a way of coping with this.” His split-screen videos full of self-deprecation elicit plenty of chuckles, but they also pave the way for the deeper and more difficult conversations that we hardly ever seem to have.
He discards the trope of “finding hope in recovery,” for something much more realistic. “The hope is the fact that I’m not fucking dead,” he says. “If I'm talking about suicide, I'm talking about it…It is shit news to say that this is not something you can fix short term or even long term. I don't know how long I have got to be like this for, but the fact is, I either find a way of living with it or die with it now.”
The mental wellness global economy is worth $121 billion. According to a study by the Global Wellness Institute, this includes services that promise sleep-optimization and stress-reduction, natural drugs to boost brain wellbeing, self-help and self-improvement, and mindfulness and meditation. Mental wellness forms part of an even larger, more unwieldy wellness industry that also includes personal care, beauty, anti-ageing, wellness tourism and workplace wellness. Altogether, the wellness industry is worth $4.5 trillion.
“The solutions that are provided for mental health problems don’t work on mental illness,” Tracini says. “Trying to fix my brain with a gratitude list is like trying to remove a tumor with a fucking spoon…There's no help for the serious shit. You just feel more mental if it doesn't work.”
This is no accident. Wellness is marketed to us as a product within a capitalist economy that thrives off of pain, distress and illness. An industry worth so much can only sustain itself by keeping its target audience tightly wound up in a cycle of mental instability so that they keep requiring its services.
We buy into these consumerist solutions because for the most part we have nowhere else to turn. Mental illness support is either underfunded in public health systems or financially out of reach and over-reliant on medication and psychiatric accommodation in private systems. At the same time, serious mental illness is not something the industry can turn into friendly marketing speak, and therefore it does not even try.
As British journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson, who has bipolar disorder, explains mentally ill people are sick and tired of seeing their struggles being reduced and trivialized into trendy corporate speak. “We should normalize the importance of good mental health and wellbeing, of course…But don’t conflate poor mental health with mental illness, even if one can lead to the other. One can have a mental illness and good mental health, and vice versa,” she writes. “It isn’t a bad thing that we are all talking more about mental health; it would be silly to argue otherwise. But this does not mean it is not infuriating to come home from a secure hospital, suicidal, to a bunch of celebrity awareness-raising selfies and thousands of people saying that all you need to do is ask for help—when you’ve been asking for help and not getting it.”
We are already struggling to balance everything that neoliberal, racialized capitalist existence demands of us: making enough money to survive, maintaining a stable work, family and social life, as well as upholding our physical health. For many, these are some of the root causes of mental illness, along with, or exacerbated by, an extra set of structural difficulties over which they have no control: systemic racism, poverty, marginalization, disability. It is dangerously overwhelming to tell already-overwhelmed people that, on top of all this, they are also not doing enough to take care of their mental health.
Tracini expresses surprise that others aren’t speaking in the same, forthright terms that he is. But it’s not surprising that in an era when nearly everything we present about ourselves is curated to be Instagram or Twitter friendly, and where these presentations are lauded, that most of us don’t yet have the courage to speak as candidly as him. Tracini is proof that there is a way to talk about mental health that’s not trite and that can’t be co-opted by people looking to make money on the ways we express our mental distress.
The possibility of not just shifting but undermining and reinventing the way we conceptualize mental health is within reach, but we can only get there if we alter the way we talk about it in the first place. The responsibility to usurp the mental health industrial complex will undoubtedly fall on the shoulders of those experiencing mental illness first hand, and we must be willing and prepared to speak about it more truthfully. But it will also take wider society rejecting the fluff and vapidity and not shying away from the reality of mental illness to really implement the culture change needed to turn “let’s talk” into a meaningful starting point.