'Smiling depression' can make suicide hard to predict. Here's what you can do.

In the wake of suicide, we're often left with two questions: "Why?" and "How could this have been prevented?"

Neither have easy answers. The painful truth — as evidenced by the recent deaths of beloved public figures Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — is that suicide is much more prevalent than many are comfortable talking about. According to statistics, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America, claiming more than 44,000 lives each year. More worryingly, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control shows that suicide rates are on the rise — up 30% from 1999.

What's even more difficult to come to grips with is the fact that suicide isn't a monolith. We may have been taught to look for warning signs in friends and family during our high school health classes and college orientations, but warning signs are often not obvious. Nor, as the tragic deaths of Spade and Bourdain have made distressingly clear, are fame, fortune, and a life that is perceived as "good" inoculations against suicidal thoughts or actions.


If there's anything the conversation that's stemmed from these high-profile deaths has re-affirmed, it's that "suicide doesn't have a look." And while it disproportionately affects some groups — LGBTQ youth, for instance, are more at risk than their non-LGBTQ counterparts — the reality is that anyone can experience suicidal ideation.

Here's the reality: Suicide is incredibly difficult to predict. There are many reasons for that.

In a piece for Big Think, Joseph Franklin, professor of psychology at Florida State University, writes that humans love explanations that are simple and universal. Though this way of thinking is often helpful, it doesn't translate when it comes to the topic of whether someone will commit suicide. In fact, Franklin's research on the topic showed that even when taking risk factors into account, the most trained experts are no better at predicting actual suicidality than "someone with no knowledge of the patient who predicted based on a coin flip."

It would be easiest if there were incontrovertible proof that depression was the main cause of suicide, but human nature is far too complex for that. Though depression is the "leading causes of disability worldwide" according to the World Health Organization, not everyone who lives with it experiences suicidal ideation. Nor, according to experts, is depression by itself the main cause of suicide.

There are also other factors at work. Many people who live with depression may not even know that they're experiencing symptoms of the disorder. And so many people try to push through the pain of depression with atypical symptoms — where the person appears fine to others — that is now colloquially known as smiling depression. Then there's the fact that despite long-held cultural beliefs about suicide, not all people who die by suicide telegraph their intentions to others. Nor are all suicides planned. Impulsivity and access to lethal means are also important factors that must be considered.

This means that it's more important than ever to show up for the people in our lives.

Just because suicide is hard to predict now, doesn't mean it will always be. And new advances in technology — specifically machine learning — are bringing researchers closer to more reliably being able to recognize who is more at risk and when.

But that technology is still years away, which means that it's on us to reach out and take action when we notice warning signs in our friends and loved ones.

Making the public at large aware of hotlines and suicide prevention centers is important, but it's also essential that we recognize that not everyone will want to, or even know that they can, utilize these services. And the stigma that surrounds mental illness often makes it feel impossible to ask for help, no matter who you are.

The most important thing we can do is be present for those that we care about. It may feel strange to call up a friend just to check up on how they're doing, but the even the smallest amount of human contact can't be overstated.

Think about your own dark times — everyone has them: When it felt like it would be too much to even text a friend, what would it have been like to receive a message from them first, just making sure you're doing OK? Would you have considered it intrusive? Or would it have been a relief to have someone just be there?

Don't be afraid to talk — even if it's about your concern that the person you're reaching out to may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. Open and compassionate conversation about suicide doesn't lead to a higher risk. Instead, it allows the person who's struggling to name what's going on and share their feelings.  Often, that's the first step to getting help.

If you or someone you know is struggling, know that there are immediate resources available if you're in a crisis. There are many organizations to become familiar with, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255, the Crisis Text Line (text "HOME" to 741741), and the Trevor Project 866-488-7386.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Image is a representation of the grandfather, not the anonymous subject of the story.

Eight years a go, a grandfather in Michigan wrote a powerful letter to his daughter after she kicked out her son out of the house for being gay. It's so perfectly written that it crops up on social media every so often.

The letter is beautiful because it's written by a man who may not be with the times, but his heart is in the right place.

It first appeared on the Facebook page FCKH8 and a representative told Gawker that the letter was given to them by Chad, the 16-year-old boy referenced in the letter.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."