Keeping The Conversation Going


When Robin Williams committed suicide back in August, a friend predicted that everyone would post obsessively about depression awareness for a week before forgetting about it and moving on. Apart from the duration – the posts lasted for two weeks – her prediction was dead-on.

Three months after the death of Mr. Williams, Facebook and Twitter posts about mental illness had all but disappeared. Then a woman named Brittany Maynard started trending on social media when she chose assisted suicide over a horrible death from cancer.

Reactions to her death have been all over the place. There are those who believe Brittany’s decision showed courage and strength of character, and there are those who are convinced that she is burning in hell because of her selfishness and disobedience of God.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way equating the deaths of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard. Robin Williams fought a long battle with depression. He felt desperate and hopeless, and when he looked into the future all he could see was a bleak, desolate landscape. Brittany Maynard was not suffering from depression, and she did not want to die. She simply knew that her death was both inevitable and imminent, and she wanted to spare herself and her family the ravages of brain cancer.

The only thing the two deaths have in common is that both individuals chose to take their own lives.

Whether or not terminally ill people are obligated to see their diseases through to the bitter end is a matter of personal opinion, and that’s another debate for another day. The thing that I took issue with after Brittany died was a comment posted by one of my Facebook contacts on a link to the story.

“Anyone who commits suicide is selfish.”

I was certain that I had seen the commenter’s name crop up in one of the discussions following the death of Robin Williams, so I started digging around in the bowels of her newsfeed. It took a while, but I found it: a statement to the effect that people really shouldn’t judge those to take their own lives without walking a mile in a depressed person’s shoes.

I’m not usually one to start a fight, but one thing I cannot stand is hypocrisy, and as an advocate for mental health awareness, I couldn’t just let it go. So I went back to the Brittany Maynard discussion and replied to her comment, reminding her of what she had said when Robin Williams died. She didn’t respond. Unfortunately, her comment about suicide being selfish was far from isolated.

I am left feeling somewhat disheartened. Did we learn nothing from the Robin Williams tragedy? If, three months later, people are spouting those cruel stereotypes that they previously vowed to help fight, how are we ever going to move forward? Will we ever be able to continue the discussions, or are we going to keep having to start the same discussions over and over again?

I don’t expect everyone to start posting endlessly about mental illness, but I would love to see it consistently treated with the same respect that is given to physical illness. I would love for people to feel able to talk about their experiences with mental illness without fear of embarrassment or shame. I would love to see the judgments and blame replaced with understanding and support.

And I would love to see more meaningful conversations that are not triggered by tragedy.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Victor. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


10 Things I Have Learned About Mental Illness


1. It’s not my fault. As much as we humans like to be in control of our lives, the likes of depression, anxiety and PTSD are not things we can control. They happen to us, and we deal with them as best we can.

2. It has absolutely no bearing on whether I am a good or a bad person. The fact that I made some bad decisions twenty years ago that triggered a whole mess of crap does not mean I don’t deserve to be happy and well.

3. The fact that an illness exists inside a person’s mind rather than in another part of their body does not make it any less of an illness. Mental illness should be given the same respect as physical illness.

4. Mental illness can, if left untreated, be fatal. Suicide and suicidal ideations are not selfish, as many people believe. They are manifestations of an illness. People contemplating suicide do not necessarily want to die, they simply feel that there is no other course of action available to them.

5. Depression is not the same as sadness. Being depressed is like being in a black pit of despair from which there seems to be no escape.

6. There is not always a reason for depression. If someone tells you that they are experiencing depression, please, please, please don’t say things like, “But you have so many great things in your life to be grateful for.”

7. I am not alone. Although my specific circumstances may be unique to me, I don’t have to look far to find someone who more or less understands what it’s like.

8. Far too many people either die or spend their lives in a state of absolute anguish because they fear the stigma of mental illness, so they choose not to talk about it.

9. Mental illness is the same as physical illness in terms of treatment: what works for one person won’t necessarily work for everyone. You have the right to make choices about your treatment, just as you do for a physical illness.

10. People with mental illnesses can, for the most part and with the right support, function well in society. They can be successful in their careers, make valuable social and economic contributions, and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Bell Let’s Talk.


Teen Series Part 2: “You Don’t Learn Respect, You Earn It”

Last week, I was honoured to have a wonderful guest post on my blog from South African teenager Alex. The post was a candid and honest view of the world from the eyes of a sixteen-year-old. Today, we hear from Alex’ best friend, Victoria Rinfreschi. Vicky is the daughter of a dear friend of mine who seems to have been getting it right when it comes to raising teenagers.

Vicky sent me plenty of words, too many to fit into one post. But I did not want to edit or cut a single word, so Vicky’s post will run in two parts. Here is the first half – uncut and unedited.

My name is Victoria – but I prefer to go by Vicky.

I currently live in Cape Town South Africa, with my parents and my older brother. I’m 16 years old. I’m currently training to be a waitress at my local spur (a South Africa food franchise based on American cuisine). I take maths lit (aka maths for stupid people – no really it’s a waste of life), English, Afrikaans, Tourism, and 2 practical subjects namely Visual Art and Design. I take 2 extra subjects; Sport Science, Italian and an extracurricular; Animation (learning graphic programs and how to animate anything you want).  I’m a qualified level 3 first aider and I write little news articles and draw cartoons for my school’s media portfolio. My parents say I do too much – sometimes I feel I don’t do enough.

When I get out of high school my goal is to study at a graphic collage. I don’t quite yet know what I want to do – but I know my field. The only thing that interests me (and the only reason I go to school) is to draw or express myself creatively in a medium of my choice – be it clay or charcoal/graphite, paint or mixed media, or even just on 3D max, my life revolves around Art.

Okay, so now you know a bit about me. I’m an “artsy-fartys” person, who works too hard, sucks at maths, and takes subjects she finds useless. Good, now that we have that out of the way, it’s time to get down to business. I’m going to write about my personal experience and what l have learnt and know. I’ve had these conversations with my friends on many occasions and I remember the thoughts behind the words. I will touch on what I feel are some of the key mistakes most make – and maybe reading this will help you have that better relationship with your child now , before those adolescent years.

Something that I didn’t mention above is that I’m possibly one of the luckiest teenagers out there. My parents got it right from the start, the Lord knows how they did it – but I certainly don’t.  Working at a family restaurant I constantly see things that shake me. Such as parents leaving their children (ages varied form 3-4 to 7-8) unattended at the restaurant for hours only to return and be upset that they can’t find their kids. Or cursing at their 5 year old telling them that they should go and die because of some arb little reason. You don’t realise it now, but the foundation you lay with your kids from the beginning determines how they will be as teenagers. It infuriates me when parents complain about how their teens are “rebellious” or need to learn respect. Well let me tell you something. YOU DONT LEARN RESPECT- YOU EARN IT! You determine how your children are going to turn out! Every word, every look, every action, imbeds itself in your child for eternity! They might not consciously remember it and you might not either but it’s there, burrowing away at their subconscious and eating away at the relationship you are trying to forge many years later.

I always knew where I stood with my parents. This is key. Everybody craves certainty. We can’t function or grow properly without it! It’s a basic need. It was my certainty that no matter what I said or did – they would ALWAYS love me, they would never take their frustrations out on me and they would ALWAYS (I shall repeat for emphasis) ALWAYS be honest with me. It was this that made it so easy to form such a great bond with my parents and make it what it is today (at the “height” of rebellious actions and puberty). If your child asks a question – no matter what it is, answer it honestly. Believe it or not, we can all tell a lie from a fact and we will question your integrity if you can so easily lie straight to our face. We aren’t going to listen to a hypocrite. Why should we be open and honest with you if you can’t lend us the same curtsy? Besides we won’t be able to trust you – you’re liar. At the end of the day it’s not what’s wrong with your teenagers; it’s what’s wrong with you. As babies we have no say about how you treat us or act around us. But as a young adult we can choose not to take it anymore.

Yes I admit when I grew up I asked some pretty difficult questions; and to be honest I mostly did to test my parents – often I already knew the answer, I just wanted to see if they would tell me the truth. And they never failed me in that respect. Don’t underestimate your child. We know a lot more than adults give us credit for. They always answered me honestly, but they always gave me just enough information that was appropriate for my age at the time.

(Photo credit: Woodley Wonder Works. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Life And Death: No Laughing Matter

People are already making jokes about it.

The first news stories about the untimely death of 27-year-old musician Amy Winehouse started circulating less than an hour before I started writing this post. Within about ten minutes of me first hearing the news, fan pages started to pop up on Facebook.

Amy Winehouse is dead, at least theres enough drugs about for everyone now (with a smiley face emoticon at the end)

Police say that winehouse’s death was unexplained LOL, at that point they were probably stoned on the drugs in her <profanity>

Screw Amy Winehouse, she was a druggy and had death lined up for her

Amy Winehouse is dead…..HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

Now, I don’t know much about Amy Winehouse. I don’t exactly fall into the demographic that stays up-to-date on popular music. However, I do know that she was insanely talented, even though her music wasn’t really to my taste. I know that she was plagued by substance abuse problems. I know that she was young and had a lot of life ahead of her, and that she had tons of potential within her.

I know that her death is unspeakably sad.

These jokes that are circulating, these fan pages that are being set up, and the derision with which some people are treating this story, is a sad statement about how people have become so desensitized to tragedy that they can have a good laugh about it before the deceased has even started to cool down.

Or maybe it’s nothing new. This is not the first time I’ve heard jokes about a tragedy soon after its occurrence: the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and the death of Mozambican president Samora Machel in a plane crash, both of which happened in 1986, are cases in point.

I wonder why this is, why there are people can make light of events like this. One theory is that they just don’t know how else to deal with news of tragedy. There is some credence to this idea, and I saw it in action on the day my father-in-law died. There was a mix-up that resulted in the wrong funeral home attempting to collect his body from the hospital, and when my mother-in-law heard about this, she made a joke about the funeral homes fighting over her husband’s dead body, and she laughed heartily. I believe that allowing a chink of humour into the day was a way for her to cope with the initial shock of being widowed after almost fifty years of marriage.

In the case of more widespread disasters, I believe that sometimes people make jokes simply because they don’t know how else to process the information.9/11. Hurricane Katrina. The tsunamis in Thailand and Japan. The Haiti earthquake.

Sometimes, though, people are just plain insensitive. They don’t feel any empathy either for the deceased or for the newly bereaved loved ones. Or  – and Amy Winehouse’s death is an example of this – they somehow rationalize that because the person lived in a certain way that they do not agree with, it is OK that he or she died.

Here’s my thought on all of this: Yes, Amy Winehouse was a celebrity – a colourful one with a controversial life, at that – and therefore her life was, to an extent, public property. And yes, she seems to have died in an Elvis-like manner that is bound to attract a lot of attention and speculation.

But above all, she was a human being with hopes and dreams and feelings and loved ones. The fact that she had substance abuse problems does not mean she deserved to die. It does not mean it is OK that she died. Her life – and her death – deserve the same respect as anyone else’s. Her family and friends should be able to grieve for their lost loved one without the world making public fun of it all.

I hope against hope that we as a society can somehow regain some of the humanity and compassion that seems to have eroded.

(Photo credit: