The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought the conversation surrounding suicide and mental health back to the forefront, but in a time when social media can be less than comforting in the wake of celebrity passings, how does one go about mourning publicly while considering those who are struggling?
During a candid conversation with BuzzFeed’s Isaac Fitzgerald hosted by the PEN World Voices Festival at NYC’s Cooper Union on Friday evening (June 8), the esteemed author, professor, editor, and commentator—who recently went back to therapy—offered her pointed take on why supporting those in struggle sometimes necessitates we go beyond sharing phone numbers.
“I don’t know that it actually helps anything except for the people who are saying it,” Gay stated. “I think that’s a form of comfort for themselves.”
Gay also offered that in order to make a change regarding how America handles mental health, “we need to start treating mental health in the same way that we treat physical health” and “we need to treat mental healthcare the same way we treat physicals and vaccines and other routine forms of healthcare.”
Read the conversation below.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Being a person is hard. Being a celebrity can be difficult. Being famous can be difficult. You published an essay recently, “What Fullness Is.” In the essay, you mentioned that you’ve gone back to therapy for the first time, and you’ve been away for about 10 years. So I wanted to start here, especially with the themes of mental health and the week that everybody’s experienced. How do you take care of yourself?
Roxane Gay: I wish I knew. I’m not good at it yet, but I will be. I think I watch a lot of Law & Order SVU, and that soothes me. It’s very relaxing, it’s on pretty much every day, and if that’s not on, Criminal Intent or the regular Law & Order is on…. I’m trying now to learn how to take better care of myself because when you write and gain attention for it, it can be really overwhelming because everyone thinks they know you when they do not, and they want things from you, and it’s exhausting. Therapy is helping me to develop boundaries and to learn how to stand up for myself, which I’m really bad at in my personal life, so I’m just trying to figure it out.
I.F.: I wanted to draw attention to Morgan Parker— [I.F. says to audience] she’s an incredible poet if you’re not familiar with her work. On Twitter, she said, “Working through pain does not erase pain,” and that was something you agreed with. I was just wondering, how can we best be there for the people in our lives?
R.G.: You know, that’s a good question, and I don’t think there’s a single right answer, but I think a lot of times people say, “What can I do for you?” instead of just doing something. I think it would be great sometimes if people just did things because I’m often so busy and so tired that I don’t have time to also give you an itinerary of what you should do for me [laughing]. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I genuinely mean figure it out! It’s not complicated.
I think if you see someone who is really overwhelmed, just sit with them, talk with them, offer to take them out for a meal or to a movie. If you know someone who actually needs to get help, help them do the work of getting there, because when I’m really depressed, if you were to tell me to make an appointment with a doctor, where on earth do you think I’m gonna find the energy to do that? Sometimes you have to help people to get the help that they need.
I also think we should all make fewer assumptions about how people are doing. I find that sometimes on Twitter I say, “I’m exhausted,” and people are like, “But you should be grateful! Things are going so well for you!” And I’m like, “You don’t know me.” People oftentimes equate material success with emotional success, and those two things are not synonymous, so don’t make assumptions about what people are doing despite what they may be projecting. I’m prolific, for example, because I self-medicate by writing, and it’s not a great thing, it’s just self-medication.
I.F.: On a larger scale, what do you think needs to change in how we as a society deal with depression, deal with mental illness, and deal with people that are going through suicidal thoughts?
R.G.: I don’t know that there are easy answers, but I do think that, as a country, we need to start treating mental health in the same way that we treat physical health, and that we need to treat mental healthcare the same way we treat physicals and vaccines and other routine forms of healthcare. It needs to be routine, and it needs to be supported and affordable and health insurance companies need to support it. So I think a lot of the changes need to happen actually legislatively and in terms of policy. I also think we need to find ways to reduce the stigma around A) saying “I’m depressed,” and B) not trying to immediately fix it or say “Smile,” or say “Cheer up,” as if it’s merely a temporary sadness and thinking some happy thoughts will just make everything better. That’s not what depression is.
I also notice, on days like today, I find the internet less than comforting on days after someone commits suicide that’s famous, because it’s well-intended, but there’s so many people that say, “We love you!” and blah blah blah. I know you mean that, but to someone who’s depressed, that doesn’t mean anything. When you’re depressed, you can’t hear that, and it doesn’t comfort you. In fact, it just makes me feel worse, like, “Oh, you love me? I’m trash. Why are you wasting your time?” The sharing of the phone numbers—again, this is well-intended good stuff, but I don’t know that it actually helps anything except for the people who are saying it. I think that’s a form of comfort for themselves, but I don’t know that it’s a form of comfort for people who are truly hurting. I just think maybe we could find a less oppressive way of mourning publicly.
This interview has been edited for brevity.