If a beloved family member or friend died of mental illness, would you tell the world why?
In a recent stunning and heart-wrenching story for The Washington Post, Eleni Pinnow, PhD (above, right), an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, explained her decision to reveal what led to her sister’s death in her obituary, published in the Duluth News Tribune:
“By the time I sat down to write my sister’s obituary I knew that the opening line could only be one thing: Aletha Meyer Pinnow, 31, of Duluth (Formerly of Oswego and Chicago, IL) died from depression and suicide on February 20, 2016.”
Her admission marks a sea change in the way some obituaries are being handled. People are choosing to mention mental illness, suicide, and addiction in an effort to raise awareness about the realities of mental health issues.
“I had to tell the truth,” Pinnow writes in the Post. “My sister’s depression fed on her desire to keep it a secret and hidden from everyone.”
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Odds are, you know someone with mental illness, as one in five adults in the U.S. suffers from it every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That's nearly 44 million people. Still, you might not know who they are. Stigmatizing stereotypes have traditionally kept mental illness shrouded in silence.
So why are loved ones now choosing to be so honest in obituaries? “Keeping this secret is an incredible burden for families,” says Nathaniel Wade, PhD, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “Being able to talk about it can start the healing process.”
Speaking openly about depression, for example, or a drug overdose is a way to deal with the tragedy, but also create hope. “These families want to redeem something good from the horrible event that occurred,” says Wade. “I can see someone who is suffering from mental illness reading an obituary like this and thinking, ‘Look at the impact this has on my family, I’m going to get treatment.’”
That was what Alex Hesse’s brother and sister had in mind when they wrote Alex’s obituary after he overdosed on heroin, Cincinnati’s WLWT reported. “In life, one little decision can make a huge impact on not just you, but also those that love and care for you," they wrote. The siblings went on to explain their decision to reveal their brother's addiction: “Hopefully by making more people aware of Alex’s struggle, we can shed some light on this devastating issue.”
Shining a light on mental illness in general is crucial. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in some states, as few as 35% of adults agreed that people are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illness. Those who are suffering likewise reported a lack of compassion from the general public.
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A revealing obituary can help chip away at fear and stigmas. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, this is a real person who had a problem, but can’t we all relate to being depressed at times, or struggling with something?” Wade explains.
The aftermath of opening up publicly can be overwhelmingly positive, and families may find additional support from their community. But there are potential ramifications too, says Wade. Sadly the loved ones left behind may be shunned, or blamed for not being a good enough parent or sister or friend, he explains.
“It all depends on the situation, but I do think in general it’s better for families to be honest because of the degree of pain that comes from keeping this a secret,” Wade says. It doesn’t have to be a public declaration in an obituary, if you’re not comfortable with that. Simply speaking freely helps. Saying something straightforward like “he was a smart, funny, caring person who unfortunately battled with depression” can be a place to start.