The brain is no less than the heart

I try to avoid rank-ordering my friends. It's hard for me to pick and choose people, because I really do enjoy the company of anyone I consider a friend. I make lists so I don't forget to visit with people -- especially if I happen to visit their towns -- just because I haven't heard from them lately. When I chose the groomsmen and ushers for my wedding, I tried to pick friends from a cross-section of experiences, just to be sure I wasn't packing the wedding party with a bunch of people from one phase of life. Such are the challenges of being a hardened extrovert.

But I'm close to demoting someone who used to be a friend down to something like "light acquaintance". It pains me to do it, but we all make choices. His choices this week have been to tie two celebrity suicides -- those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain -- to a conspiracy theory so absurd that it violates both logic and common decency.

I don't want to give the conspiracy theory any credibility, so I'll only give the nonsense a glance here -- it's a product of the "Qanon" subculture found online -- "Qanon" being the username of an account on a website called 4chan, which has long been a home for bad stuff on the web. (When I've said that you should keep your computer out of bad neighborhoods on the web, I've been talking about sites like 4chan, which I name only for the sake of the record here.)

But this friend of mine thinks he's getting insider news from this so-called "Qanon" figure, and the pied piper of conspiracy theorizing is telling my friend that a bunch of celebrities are going to prison soon in some kind of massive bust for all kinds of heinous crimes. It's truly a bonkers theory.

And that's why my friend is now popping off on Facebook saying that Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade killed themselves to avoid prosecution.

No. And if you have friends or family who are plugging into this utter garbage, please do as I've done and tell them why they need to stop.

Suicide is too real and too important a subject to let us dismiss it as fodder for conspiracy theories. It's the #10 cause of death in the United States overall. The rate is rising at a statistically-significant pace. And from ages 10 to 54, it's one of the top 5 killers in America.

That's not something to spin into conspiracy theory. It's something to take seriously as a very real threat to the lives of our loved ones.

I can't tell you what happened inside the minds of Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain. But there's often a connection between great artistic or other sensory talent and clinical depression. And there is too often a connection between clinical depression and suicide.

Everyone knows someone with clinical depression, whether we know it or not. It's just that prevalent. And it's a medical condition that's hard for those of us without it to understand. But we should try. (In fact, you can start by reading the brilliant, extremely well-written, and amusingly illustrated piece by Allie Brosh, found on her website "Hyperbole and a Half".)

We should try to understand that when someone's chemistry in the brain works in a certain way, it has to be treated carefully, thoughtfully, and professionally. When I had a bout with cancer ten years ago, nobody told me it was my fault or that it was only in my head or that I just needed to think different thoughts. Everyone recognized that it was a medical condition, that it was outside my control, and that I needed modern medicine to help me.

All of us need to show the same concern and respect for people with conditions of the brain -- whether it's depression or anxiety or any of a long list of other conditions -- and recognize that we have a part to play. You don't have to become an oncologist to show compassion and care to a patient with cancer, and you don't have to be a psychologist to show the same compassion and care to someone with a condition affecting the brain. We all should.

And part of that includes not cheapening the circumstances of loss by turning celebrity suicides into scripts for conspiracy theories. You don't have to know or be a fan of Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade to know that their work in food and fashion made lots of people happy, and that whatever led them to take their own lives is a tragedy for them and for their loved ones.

Maybe instead of spinning conspiracy theories, we should take some time to check in with our friends and family to see how they're doing. To remind them that we're around to help. To tell them that we take seriously whatever battles they face. To educate ourselves about what they face. And to care about what happens to their brains, just like we would care if something happened to their hearts.

Iowa is making institutional progress at how we're treating mental health care. We need to make cultural progress with it, too. Lives depend on it.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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