A brutal and divisive Mississippi primary ended in tragedy last week, when Mark Mayfield, a supporter of the losing candidate, committed suicide. But the attendant tragedy is the continuous failure of people – grieving as they may be – to understand what depression really is and what drives someone to take his own life. And the entire saga of the primary shows how far we have to go in understanding and treating illnesses of the mind.
Mayfield had been arrested in connection with a disturbing and bizarre episode during the campaign, when someone entered the nursing home of the ailing wife of Sen. Thad Cochran, and took pictures of her, posting them as a video online. Mrs. Cochran has Alzheimer’s, and the point of the video was unclear. Was it to embarrass the six-term senator, who faced a tough primary contest from tea party primary opponent Chris McDaniel? Was it to suggest that he was neglecting her, or that he, too, was getting a bit long in the tooth? It doesn’t matter, because the act was beyond disgraceful and stunningly disrespectful. The McDaniel campaign denounced it, notably.
Whether Mayfield was actually involved in planning the episode, we may never know. We do know that he was apprehended and arrested with several police cars, lights flashing, showing up to get him. Mayfield’s friends have complained bitterly about the police behavior (wrongly saying it was a “SWAT team” that came to arrest him). And the accusation has been made by several of Mayfield’s defenders that the alleged police aggression drove Mayfield to kill himself.
It’s understandable, when someone dies prematurely, that grieving loved ones will look for someone to blame. But what makes this situation more complicated is that there is sadly insufficient attention paid to mental health. Mental illnesses are still seen as signs of weakness, when in fact they are often a result of chemical imbalances. Over the weekend, I saw a woman sitting next to a gas station, unkempt and screaming. Does anyone thinks she wants to live that way? She’s mentally ill, and there are appallingly few places where she can go for help, if she even knows how to get help. There’s another woman I’ve seen on the street recently who is so painfully, scarily thin – her legs look like twigs – and she frequently power-walks through the neighborhood, apparently trying to make herself even thinner. She’s not trying to get a modeling contract; she obviously has anorexia nervosa, and is powerless to fight the destructive, and potentially deadly, hold it has over her.
Depression is even more difficult for well people to understand. First, many of us throw around the word “depressed” as though having a broken love affair or a bad run at work is the same thing as real, clinical depression. True depression, someone once explained to me, is like a cancer on the soul. The difference is that someone with cancer will be given sympathy, support and, hopefully, adequate treatment. Depressed people are often seen as weak, even though they, too, are suffering from a physical ailment. It’s just that the ailment affects the mind. The idea that someone could “snap out of” depression is as ludicrous as the idea that someone could snap out of brain cancer.
It’s hard for people who are mentally well to understand what would make someone take his or her own life, so there’s a tendency to attach an event or provocation to it. Suicide is so irrational to a mentally healthy person that it’s hard not to examine it from the standpoint of logic. So, Mayfield was upset – he thought he had been wrongly accused, his friends said, and was worried the whole episode would damage the McDaniel campaign. But people suffer far worse embarrassments and disappointments, and they don’t commit suicide. Mayfield also seemed like a jovial person before he died. That also is not atypical; a friend of mine who succumbed to depression was, in fact, always the person in the room who would have everyone else laughing within minutes. Depression doesn’t mean you are feeling blue or sluggish. It is a mental health ailment, and it can happen to any one of us. Perhaps that’s why we are so reluctant to deal with depression as the genuine medical issue that it is.
It is a sad and terrible thing that has befallen Mayfield, his friends and his family. But turning his tragic death into another chapter in a fiercely fought senatorial campaign not only disrespects Mayfield, but disrespects everyone who struggles with depression. The best thing way to respond to Mayfield’s suicide is to make a public commitment to understanding, treating (and more to the point, paying for the treatment for) mental illness. And we should remember, too, that any one of us could be afflicted with such a lonely and terrifying ailment.