Stigma Articles

Robin Williams: Celebrity vs non-celebrity suicide

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

shutterstock_107614721Robin Williams.

Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Cobain. Marilyn Monroe. Vincent VanGogh. Sigmund Freud. Spalding Grey. Frida Kahlo. Shakir Stewart (Def Jam). Cleopatra. Junior Seau. Roy Raymond (founder, Victoria’s Secret). Socrates. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. L’Wren Scott. Virginia Woolf. Abbie Hoffman. David Carradine. Wendy O. Williams. Mary Kay Bergman (SouthPark voices) Robert Enke (soccer).

These are the suicides you hear about in the media. Because of their accomplishments and talent, their suicides supercede the hushed rule in newsrooms throughout the land: We don’t cover suicides unless it’s someone famous or caused a public spectacle.

Why, you ask, when journalists are so damn ruthless about ferreting out and publicizing the most private and embarrassing moments of other people’s lives do they not cover suicides? Publicly, editors will tell you that they do it out of respect for the families and loved ones of those who commit suicide. You can decide whether you want to believe that.

Here is the problem with that logic: It covers up the prevalence of suicide and mental illness. For every celebrity who commits suicide, there are countless others who have suffered just as much and took their lives, too.

For example, in 2012 there were 205 suicides in Palm Beach County, where I live. At the local newspaper, where I work, we covered two: a murder/suicide and a teenager who shot himself on a bench near his exclusive, private school.

As a reporter I have had to interview the parents, husbands, wives, children and friends of murder and accident victims. It’s not easy and most of the time they don’t want their loved one or themselves in the news. I get that. I respect that.

The last thing I want to do is call the parents of a teenager who hung herself or stepped in front of a train. But are we doing ourselves a disservice by not covering suicides? Are we stigmatizing suicide and mental illness even more by keeping it off the evening news unless the person is a celebrity?

We often write about people who die of breast cancer. Occasionally we report that someone died of AIDS. But people who are …


Depression: How do you tell your boss you can’t work?

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I went back to work last week. I had been off several weeks after a tough, two-week, out-of-town assignment that brought me to my knees on the edge of my black hole.

In all, I was gone five weeks – some pre-planned vacation and some comp time. Still, when you’re out of the office for that long, for any reason, people are going to wonder why you have been gone so long.shutterstock_180918260

If you don’t have a mental illness – whether it’s depression or alcoholism or an anxiety disorder – you’ve probably never been confronted with these questions: How do you call in sick when your mental illness prevents you from work? What do you say when you go back to work after an extended absence  because of your mental illness?

When you have to answer these questions, you realize how much stigma there is about mental illness.

If you had to take off a couple of weeks because you had pneumonia, you would simply tell your boss that you could not work because you had pneumonia. But what do you say when your depression prevents you from working? How do you call in sick with depression?


Justifying late-term abortions: Mother’s mental health is not enough

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Last week Florida lawmakers passed a law banning most abortions during the third-trimester. A doctor who performs an abortion during the third trimester and anyone who assists can be charged with the third-degree felony.

shutterstock_152763305However, the law makes an exception when a “physician certifies in writing that, in reasonable medical judgment, there is a medical necessity for legitimate emergency medical procedures for termination of the pregnancy to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of imminent substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.”

Without wading into the debate over abortion, I would like to weigh in on the exception in the exception of  “a psychological condition.”


Bullying people with mental illnesses

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Imagine a bulletin board on the internet that allowed anyone to comment – anonymously – on your job performance.

Anyone can say whatever they want about the work you do. Some praise and thank you. Others mock you and trash a project that you painstakingly researched and produced. You must always always put your name on your work and claim it as your own. Still, anonymous critics swipe away at your work, leaving you unable to confront your accuser.

shutterstock_92850706That’s what it’s like to be a newspaper reporter these days. It used to be that when readers wanted to criticize or comment on your story they would write a letter to the editor. Newspapers didn’t publish anonymous letters. They called the author and confirmed the person actually wrote the letter.

Then came the internet. Anyone can anonymously say anything about your work – and you – without any consequence. It ‘s unfair but as my mother used to say – “Life isn’t fair.”

You were right, mom. Life isn’t fair.

I am also an alcoholic. An alcoholic journalist. It’s been 15 years since I had  my last drink but I am still an alcoholic and still a journalist. Always will be. I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic or a journalist. I understand there is still a lot of stigma associated with being an alcoholic. But I am at a point in my career, life and recovery where I am comfortable with who I am. I don’t hide either but I don’t mix the two in reporting the news.


1,000 bodies found at site of former “lunatic asylum.” What are we going to do about it?

Monday, February 17th, 2014

I’ve never liked the word asylum, unless you’re talking about some poor soul living under some repressive regime that desperately wants to be in the United States.

I’m talking about “asylum” as in “insane asylum.” You rarely even hear “asylum” used in that context anymore. guess that’s progress, right? So, I was shocked when a friend sent me an article which featured the word “asylum” in a bad kind of way.download

Graves’ discovery affects Miss. medical school’s plans

According to the article, more than 1,000 bodies have been found on a construction site at the University of Mississippi. Some of the bodies are believed to have been patients at the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum a century ago. None of the bodies have names or identifying information.

The asylum opened in 1855 and could house 150 patients. After the Civil War it expanded and could house 300 patients. Officials at the fast-growing University of Mississippi medical school planned to build a parking lot on the site.

Dr. James Keeton, dean of the medical school, said that moving the remains to a new burial site would cost an estimated $3 million — that’s $3,000 per body.

“We can’t afford that,” Keeton said, according to the article.

Really? Are you kidding me? First of all, I have a hard time believing the University of Mississippi can’t come up with $3 million to move the remains of mentally ill patients at the site of the state’s former Lunatic Asylum. If the Ole Miss football team needed $3 million, they would find it. Trust me.asylum (1)

What bothers me most is that no one seems interested in finding out who these poor souls are, where they came from and how to dignify their resting place. No one is mentioning conditions and policies at the Lunatic Asylum that allowed inmates to be buried in mass graves with no records identifying them, their illnesses and how they died.

Personally, I care. I think it is tremendously important for us to be reminded how people with mental illnesses were treated – mistreated …


Depression as fashion…not

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I have a few questions about Urban Outfitters controversial “Depression” shirt – like who the heck would wear that?

You’ve got a cropped t-shirt (who even wears those anymore?) covered the word “depression” in a busy pattern of different size letters. In the t-shirt’s defense, “Depression” is the name of the clothing line. Really? Who names their clothing line after a mental illness? What’s next?

tshirtWell, I don’t know what’s next but I can tell what the last shirt that got Urban Outfitters in trouble. It’s the one that said “Eat Less” on an emaciated teenager. REALLY? I mean, REALLY? You tell me that there was a photo shoot at some studio and the stylists put an “Eat Less” t-shirt on an emaciated teenage model and SOMEONE in the studio didn’t say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not cool. We can’t do this!”

And there is some buyer at Urban Outfitters (who apparently didn’t get the memo about the Eat Less shirt) who saw the Depression t-shirt and thought, “Ooooo! We just have to carry that shirt!”

Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of the stuff that Urban Outfitters sells. In fact, I just got a pair of tangerine Chuck Taylors for $10. Obviously, I don’t have much fashion sense but I love a good deal. But what little fashion sense – and common sense – I have were thoroughly insulted by the “Depression” t-shirt.


Fixing Our Mental Health Care Problem: More Guns and a Database

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

I can’t help but watch Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, talk about mental illness after a mass shooting. He’s like a zamboni clearing the ice of any blame that should go to our lack of gun regulations and leaving behind a nice smooth surface for him to rant on and on about us “maniacs” getting our hands on guns.

I can’t help myself. I have to watch him. Last Sunday on Meet the Press he claimed there just weren’t enough “good guys with guns” to stop the “bad guy” with a gun at the Navy shipyard in Washington, DC. I think Wayne watched too many westerns as a kid. Wayne, you just can’t divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys.” You ever see the movie Taxi Driver with Robert De Niro?mental health

We have got to stop letting guys like LaPierre stoke the fear of people with mental illnesses. The overwhelming majority of us are not a threat. Putting my name in a database because I tried to kill myself 30-some years ago is not going to make you safer, Wayne. And, it’s going to piss me off and clear the ice for a nasty, expensive legal showdown between the ACLU and government – which will again distract us from any meaningful gun regulation and care for people with mental illnesses.


Listening to the voices of suicide

Friday, September 6th, 2013

The thing about suicide is that once you are touched by it, it’s always there.

For people like me, who have attempted suicide, suicide is always in our back pocket. Yes, I got well. I got treatment, therapy, medications and unfailing support. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams but suicide is still in my back pocket. I am as far away from suicide now as I can be and the thought of it is absurd to me now.

When my drinking and depression were at their worst, I would awaken in the middle of the night,Help me lie still in bed and listen to my thoughts: “Oh, you didn’t hear? She killed herself.” Over and over I heard someone explain my death. I no longer awaken to those horrible thoughts. Today, my middle-of-the night thoughts are of stepping on damn dog toys on the way to the bathroom.

Suicide is not an option for me now but it’s still in my back pocket. Most of the time I don’t even realize it’s there. But it comes rushing back when I hear about someone who has done “it.”

It’s probably even worse for someone who has had a parent, brother, sister or loved one kill themselves. They say those people – the true survivors of suicide – are more prone to take their own lives, too. But that’s just a statistic – which is what a lot of the chatter about suicide is: data and statistics. We don’t really get to hear about it first hand because we don’t know how to approach suicide survivors.

I once went to a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and struck up a conversation with a couple whose son had killed himself years ago. They had shared their story often and were as comfortable as parents can be sharing their child’s suicide. They encouraged me to ask questions.

All I wanted to know is, what’s the best thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? Much of the information we get about a suicide is …


Dr. Phil and Brian Williams: Will They Apologize? UPDATE: Brian apologizes

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

UPDATE: Wednesday, August 14, 2013
In response to my blog posted yesterday, I received an email this afternoon from a spokeswoman at NBC. Thank you, Brian, for doing the right thing. It means a lot to me – as both a journalist and a person with two mental illnesses. Below is the text of the email from the NBC spokeswoman:

Brian immediately realized the error of his words, and he updated the broadcast to omit that phrase for later feeds. The corrected video that aired in the rest of the country that night is online here. We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks and hope you can forgive the mistake.

As the recent furor over remarks made by Dr. Phil and news-anchor Brian Williams about mental illness seems to have subsided, I can’t help but wonder about the discussions that the shows’ producers had about how to respond to the outcry.

I am a journalist – a newspaper reporter – not a high-profile, well-paid network news anchor – like Brian Williams – who for much of his career has merely read the news that other journalists have gathered and reported. I am also mentally ill. I have alcoholism and bipolar disorder II, also known as hypo-mania.sorry

In the last month we have heard Dr. Phil, the daytime talk-show host/psychologist who likes to “get real,” and NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams, each make a major semantic faux pas on national television.

Dr. Phil calmed a guest’s worries by telling her that her obsession did not mean that she was “insane” because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” Then Brian Williams described Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held three women captive and raped them for years, as “arguably the face of mental illness.”

I am not surprised the Dr. Phil has not apologized or retracted or even tried to explain his remarks despite calls for him to do so by the country’s major mental health organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. Dr. Phil is a talk-show host who routinely sacrifices his credibility in the name of ratings. Unfortunately, we have come to expect those kinds of reckless comments from television personalities.

But Brian Williams’ silence is disturbing. I would like to know if his silence is voluntary or imposed upon him by his producers and network officials. I know how these discussions and decisions go because in my 30+ years as a journalist, I have been in them. While the reporter has a say, the editors, producers, lawyers and company officials make the final decision.


Doctors who give addicts their drugs: Ignorance or malpractice?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

As a recovered alcoholic, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that many doctors unwittingly commit malpractice when they prescribe a narcotic or benzodiazepine without first screening the patient for substance abuse.

christensen

Dr. John Christensen, photo Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

Giving Xanax to an addict is a prescription for relapse. It’s not a shame-on-you mistake. It’s an irresponsible, negligent mistake that can be fatal. I’m not just talking about MDs either. I’m talking about the dentist who pulls a wisdom tooth and sends the patient home with a prescription for Percocet.

I have made this argument before and I get riled up every time I hear about a doctor who has done this. The latest case happened here in my hometown and the doctor was actually charged.

Dr. John Christensen, a chiropractor-turned-MD who got his medical degree from a school in the Dominican Republican that closed amid allegations that it was a diploma mill, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the overdose deaths of two patients he treated at his clinic. Besides the two murder charges, Christiansen also faces 89 other charges, mostly trafficking in oxycodone.

Investigators focused on 35 patients from several Florida counties who died after Christensen prescribed them high-powered narcotics. In two of those cases investigators concluded they had enough evidence to charge him with murder.

According to investigators, Christensen prescribed lethal doses of oxycodone, Xanax and methadone to patients who didn’t have legitimate medical needs. In fact, Christensen’s attorneys argued in civil lawsuits that the doctor was trying to help addicts wean themselves from drugs. Christensen settled the suits without admitting wrongdoing.

Although this appears to be a case of a doctor who was operating a pill mill and wrote prescriptions with full knowledge that his patients were addicts, this is a start and hopefully a wake-up call  for doctors who don’t bother to screen patients for substance abuse before writing a prescription for these drugs.


Hoping for a Happy Ending
Check out Christine's book!
Hope for a Happy Ending: A Journalist's
Story of Depression, Bipolar and Alcoholism
Christine Stapleton

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