Spence Jackson, the spokesman of former Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich, was found dead Sunday in his apartment in St. Louis. Police are investing the death as an apparent suicide. He left a note stating that he could not handle being unemployed again.
About a month earlier, Schweich, who was running for governor of Missouri, committed suicide. He had been attacked by political opponents through disgraceful whisper campaigns and degrading campaign ads.
Both men’s actions prior to taking their respective lives – Jackson’s note and Schweich’s voicemails – indicate their mental instability, which is possibly linked to depression from their surrounding circumstances.
It’s a powerful word, one we often throw around to describe anomalous activities. When adults act outside the norm and cause harm to themselves or others, even experts look to words like “depression” and “mental illness” for an explanation.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a Suicide Awareness Voices of Education study. To put it into perspective, suicide claims as many lives per year as the flu, pneumonia or nephritis. Experts and trends from the same study directly connect rises in depression with rises in rates of suicide.
Depression is a serious concern in American culture, where overwork, underpay and lack of sleep, which can increase the possibility of depression, are significantly growing trends. Using the word arbitrarily or outside of its definition, not only ruins its true meaning but diminishes the true concern needed to combat it.
When a word becomes common, society loosens its respect for the power specific vocabulary it carries. Think of “Ebola,” “police brutality” and “school shooting.” All very powerful words, but due to recent abuse in media coverage of each, society no longer respects their use.
The common phrase may very well be “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but it can be argued that Schweich’s suicide proves this is not true. Every word has power, whether it is given recognition of that or not.
The power of words is slipping through the cracks as it becomes easier to broadcast them.
So when a pilot took down a plane in the Alps and killed 150, the media and politicians jump to use the word “depressed” in describing the pilot because it was recognizable and it made sense — at first.
French Prime Minister Manual Vall’s words on the incident were: “everything is pointing to a criminal, crazy, suicidal action that we cannot comprehend.”
Criminal, crazy and suicidal might very well describe this pilot’s actions, but immediately labeling him without proof is dangerous. So why is this becoming the norm?
Culture teaches that answers to an anomaly is always necessary. We’ve eliminated room in life for mystery, so when something unknown occurs, there’s a rush to label it. The 24-hour news cycle needs something to debate and analyze, and vernacular describing incidents is required for that.
But in relying only on what conveniently describes the event or what words are easiest to communicate the problem, the power and purpose of words such as “depression” has fallen to the wayside.
What is depression? It’s a severe mental angst that impacts not only the afflicted but family and friends as well. It’s suffering from an instability.
The actions of this pilot are not “depression.” Someone’s state of mind can influence their actions, but depression is not an act.
That’s the only word that describes what the pilot, Andrew Lubwitz, did. He killed himself, yes an act of suicide, but more importantly, he killed every member on board the plane – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, children, elderly. Yes, he had anti-depression medication in his home, but violent behavior that leaves dozens of people dead is not in the least bit the manifested actions of depression. It’s an act of aggression. It’s an act of terrorism.
Instead of continually muddling the understanding – or more likely misunderstanding – of true depression, we need to work on fixing the growing issue of depression. The appropriate label is secondary to comforting those with mental illnesses.
It is very possible that Lubwitz was depressed, but in mislabelling his actions as the results of his possible depression, it weakens the word even more. By passively labeling the pilot as “depressed,” the true nature of who he was and what led up to him down the commercial flight is missed.
As the world watches and wades through the investigation of Lubwitz’s actions, as many begin to mourn the loss of Jackson and as Missouri continues to wrestle with the death of Schweich, it must be remembered that words have power. We should respect that. We should honor that.
And honoring the words we use to describe those afflicted with mental illness begins with remembering their true meaning.