It’s not time to just Kiss and make up

Article by Frank Quinlan, Chief Executive Officer, Mental Health Australia

When Kiss front man Gene Simmons said depressed people and those contemplating suicide should go ahead and kill themselves he sparked a social media storm and was rightly, and universally condemned.  Triple M radio subsequently banned Kiss’ music and one suspects that the band may never recover completely.

We all make comments that we later regret.

I’ve certainly had my fair share of arguments where I’ve said something foolish and immediately wanted to take it back.  Luckily for me on those occasions the only person hearing my mistaken words was someone close to me, someone who would understand and forgive me, regardless of the nature of comment I had made.

Celebrities, on the other hand, are judged harshly and quickly on each and every brief comment they make. They are often lured into such statements by interviewers who are skilled at making them feel comfortable, helping them forget for a moment that they are being watched by millions. Sometimes interviewers work to actively catch public figures out, “gotcha journalism”; such is the nature of fame.

There are times when comments are offensive to many, regardless of the context. When the words have hurtful consequences for the people who are hearing them, even if those consequences were not intended. In the case of Gene Simmons I suspect the words were used with the intention to shock and annoy, even disgust.

However, we all know that even comments made in the heat of the moment, comments that are ill thought out, comments that are intended to shock or amuse can reveal a deeper truth about the thinking of the individual who makes them and the audience to whom they are speaking.

While Gene Simmons’ comments were at the most vulgar and extreme end of the spectrum, do we really think Gene Simmons is alone in treating mental illness as some kind of personal weakness or failing in an individual?  

We live in a society where many people who experience mental illness do not seek help because of the stigma we attach to it.  We live in a society where the stigma associated with mental illness remains a significant barrier to employment.  We live in a society where we spend substantially less on researching, preventing and treating mental illness that we do on most other forms of ill-health.  We live in a society where terms that describe mental illness, like “psycho” “looney” “nuts” and “mental” are too frequently used as derogatory terms to describe the behaviour of criminals and fools.

Gene Simmons’ comments at the weekend were worse than stupid. Sadly we know that such statements have the potential to be dangerous and deadly.

Research indicates that vulnerable people can be unduly influenced by such statements. People already at risk of suicide may feel more likely to act on their inclination when encouraged to do so by a public figure. This is the harsh and sad reality of such statements.

Almost immediately afterwards, Simmons apologised. He made a public statement condemning his own words and pointing to his own charity work in the mental health space. This was recognition that his words were offensive and dumb. Of course the real shame is that the apology didn’t receive the level of coverage that the original statements did.

And this is where a bigger mistake has been made by us all. Simmons’ comments following his grand mistake could provide the jumping off point for us to have a conversation about mental health.

Gene Simmons’ comments could be a catalyst for a discussion about the stigmatising attitudes and behaviour that any one of us might display in relation to mental illness.  Do the things we say and do encourage help seeking behaviour, or imply that people experiencing mental distress should just toughen up?  Do we actively accommodate the needs of the employees and work colleagues who might be among of the 20% of Australians experiencing mental illness this year, or might be caring for someone who is?  Do we use language in our everyday conversations that might be stigmatising for someone silently dealing with the internal tribulations of mental illness?

It is easy to enjoy the righteous afterglow of condemning such appalling behaviour like that displayed by Gene Simmons.  The link between his comments and their impact is so obvious.

It is a much harder to task to overcome the stigma and discrimination that lurks quietly in the hearts of all of us.


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