Behind a smile: Mental well-being hides in the spotlight

Sometimes it can be hard to see when someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts.  


Content warning: reference to suicide and self harm.

Every year or so there is a celebrity suicide that rocks the nation. Countless back-to-back Instagram stories, Twitter threads and mourning Facebook posts flood the internet and public’s minds for a week or so, but then it seems that life carries on. Another soul found life to be too much to bear and felt no choice but to leave — it is a tragic reality that more people than ever face.

A little over a month ago I was sitting on the bottom bunk of my second-floor sorority house room when I tapped on the first Instagram story that announced Stephen “tWitch” Boss’ death by suicide. I found myself in a similar position almost a year ago, scrolling on Instagram one Sunday morning when I saw that Cheslie Kryst, a former Miss USA, had taken her own life.

I have struggled in the past with being able to show emotion or understanding the gravity of situations, but news of both of their deaths brought me to tears almost immediately. As someone who has struggled with mental health behind a smiley, high-achieving facade, their deaths resonated with me in a way that deaths due to physical conditions, illnesses and accidents never have. 

I was 12 years old and in the middle of production week for my dance studio’s performance of the “Nutcracker” when one of the male party guests took his own life. Seeing the tears of those around me, and consumed with preteen ignorance, I remember being annoyed how his actions took such a toll on rehearsals. How selfish of him to only think of himself? What about the show, his friends, his family?

Now, more than eight years later, I wish someone would have been there to change my perspective. 

Suicide is heartbreaking, confusing, impossible to comprehend, but not at all selfish. I do not wish to speak on the experiences of others, but I view a person who commits suicide as someone who so badly needs relief from their own seemingly unbearable surroundings or mental state. It is the end of a suffering so profound that there seems to be no way out. 

Meghan Beckmann, a senior criminology and psychology double major, has felt the direct impact of suicide in her family.

“My mom’s stepbrother committed suicide, and she always talks about how they went to dinner a couple nights before he committed suicide, and even my grandma [didn’t know his struggles] — just nobody knew,” Beckmann said. “Nobody could tell anything … It’s so sad.”

Assistant professor of psychology Dr. Karina Hamamouche said it can be impossible for those who have not experienced suicidal thoughts or actions to understand the thought process that leads someone to that point. 

“I think it’s really hard for any of us to imagine what that must feel like to come to a point where you are even contemplating ending your life,” Hamamouche said. “I, unfortunately, have had people in my life who have died by suicide, and I didn’t know that they were struggling at all. I also, in hindsight, never asked how they were doing because I never even thought to do that.”

While mental health is a topic that is becoming more welcomed in conversations, even by those who regularly grace the red carpet, I think society limits itself in what it thinks a person struggling with mental health should look like. 

Just as physical conditions can present a variety of symptoms, or no symptoms at all, the same goes for mental disorders. 

Brita Gilbert, junior dance arts administration major and business administration minor, notes that mental health looks different for everyone. Gilbert, who hid her struggles for years on end behind a successful, creative, well-dressed public persona, remembers feeling incredibly lonely and contemplating suicide.

“I’ve experienced two to three days worth of time where I didn’t see a single other person, didn’t go to my classes, didn’t leave my room, kept my door locked [and] didn’t respond to people,” Gilbert said. “There are good days, there are high-functioning days, and there are low-functioning days or no-functioning days. Someone can be so high-functioning until they hit that breaking point, and if it’s been long enough, if that drop is hard enough, [suicide] can come out of nowhere … It makes me emotional because you can’t blame them.”

While it has not been confirmed whether or not tWitch suffered from any mental health conditions, Kryst’s mom, April Simpkins, came out after her daughter’s death and revealed that Kryst struggled with high-functioning depression. 

High-functioning depression is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, DSM, in the way that major depressive disorder, MDD, is. Even though it is not a technical term, psychology professor Dr. Joel Martin said he assumes the distinction is used to mean the same thing as when talking about high-functioning alcoholism, where individuals satisfy the diagnostic criteria for being depressed or having a substance use disorder but are able to carry out a number of activities of daily life. 

“Lots of people struggle with depression and can put on a happy face when they’re around other people,” Martin said. “That happens all the time, and no one’s countenance is in any way indicative of what’s going on beneath the surface. I think that’s true for depression, and that’s true for most conditions.”

The term “high-functioning” could sound like a compliment in another context and could imply that an individual does not experience the gravity of psychological struggles of those with clinically diagnosable conditions. Alyse Dittrich, Rachel Goldfarb and Sierra Gillis — Counseling and Consultation Services’ three doctoral psychology interns —  said in a collective email to The Butler Collegian that it is important to realize the term is not in relation to the seriousness of symptoms, but rather how an individual manages their responsibilities. 

“To have a mental condition that is ‘high-functioning’ doesn’t necessarily speak to the severity level or intensity of feelings,” they said. “Rather, it speaks to the individual’s ability to mask their symptoms from the world. Ironically, this could lead to further isolation from others and feeling alone in one’s struggles, worsening the mental health condition.”

I looked at pictures of Kryst, the brilliant, curly-haired woman I watched get crowned as Miss USA, for months after her death. As of recently, I now find myself watching YouTube highlights of So You Think You Can Dance, where tWitch wowed with his megawatt smile and always-dancing legs. His kindness and energy were infectious — even though I only ever experienced it through a TV screen. 

The disconnect between what I, along with millions of fans, saw from a distance is baffling. What Kryst, tWitch and countless others managed to hide from even their closest friends and family is unimaginable.

Gilbert spoke about this disconnect in an Instagram post she made last year about the troubled reality a smile can hide. 

“I felt like no one actually knew me because I was known for the things I did, or for something superficial, like looks or the way I dressed,” Gilbert said regarding what contributed to years of suicidal thoughts. “And so, on the outside, I, in turn, had people telling me that’s kind of who I was supposed to be, and I just kind of played the part because it was easier.”

Any sudden death can be hard to understand, whether it is self-inflicted or not. In the cases of celebrity suicides where fame, money and success are all abundant, however, I think it speaks to the gravity of how deeply someone can struggle, and how no physical surroundings and traditional markers of achievement can remedy the mind. 

“There were times where I seriously considered suicidal thoughts, and for me … I couldn’t because of my mom,” Beckmann said. “It was something that I literally couldn’t even fathom because she was doing so much for me, and I felt like I at least owed it to her to try. But that being said, there were times where I didn’t care what my mom would have had to say or my best friends … It’s an internal thing. It’s not going to be solved by external influences or factors.”

I have read and heard countless comments both on social media and in-person that scrutinize those who commit suicide. In the relatively recent case of tWitch’s death, one might wonder how he could leave behind his wife and three kids — not to mention the lavish life of someone with his status.

It feels nearly impossible to understand a choice, like suicide, that leaves such devastating, widespread effects. Even though it is a reality, calling suicide “a choice” inherently means that there are other options. 

I cannot speak for those who have fallen victim to taking their own life, but I imagine the intense emotional pain some people experience takes away that idea of choice. In other words, there is no escape, only an end. 

Martin said that those who attempt suicide and fail, report that the feeling of having the walls caving in is what drove their efforts. I do not think this level of hopelessness is something to place blame on. In the same way that people who develop physical conditions are not blamed for their reality, why would the standard be any different for those who struggle psychologically? 

“We do really consider people with physical ailments very differently than people with mental health challenges, and I think unfortunately, even though there’s been a lot of awareness brought around mental health, I think in all aspects, there’s still a huge stigma,” Hamamouche said. “… I do think that that contributes to whether or not people feel comfortable seeking treatment, seeking counseling, whether people feel comfortable even disclosing that information to family, friends, peers, teachers, whereas it seems like people feel more comfortable sharing about the physical problems that are going on.”

Our world has fostered a culture where people tend to take physical health and appearance more seriously than mental well-being. In the same token, I think people can confuse a good outward appearance with meaning that someone is also doing well mentally. 

Perception is not always reality. Kryst and tWitch are only two of countless examples that show how much can remain hidden behind a smile.

“If you feel like the person on the inside can’t keep up with the person on the outside, it’s really hard because at that point you either have to say, ‘Hey, I need help’ … or you feel like you can’t do that,” Gilbert said. “If [someone is] at the place where they feel like there is no hope, I mean, it’s heartbreaking. There’s no solution. I just think that it is something people need to talk about.”


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