When I first heard of the unexpected death of popular Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, the pieces just didn’t fit. She was 48, healthy, and she died at home. There was that remote chance that she had had a sudden brain aneurysm or heart attack, but my intuition told me she’d taken her own life. When her husband told reporters that she’d been struggling through a severe bout of depression recently, the truth came into focus. My heart has been heavy for days.
My spouse and several of my close friends attended Vermont Law School where Hanna taught—one of the many jobs she juggled: commentator and contributor on both WCAX and VPR, lawyer, writer, mentor, and mom. I’d met Hanna, sat in on her class a few times, and even appeared in a short video that some friends produced for an assignment for her class. Hanna liked to keep things fun and interesting and was not above showing scenes from “My Cousin Vinnie” in order to demonstrate how to qualify an expert witness. As so many who knew her mourn her death, even more—including those who never met her—wonder why it had to come to this.
Her close friend, Ellen Sklar, told a reporter, “She was more full of life than anyone I’ve ever know.” And yet Hanna’s husband, Paul Henninge, explained that Hanna “went to a dark place so quickly. For Cheryl, she began to loop. And when you loop in a dark place, you lose your ability to see outside of this dark place.” I am in my own loop—perseverating over what might have helped her let in some light.
She was a very talented woman, a popular teacher and someone with the means to get help. She also had so very much to live for; she left behind her 11-year old daughter and 8-year old son. The thought that terrifies me is: If depression can swallow her whole—someone with so many gifts and resources—how is anyone safe from its ravages? She hid it so well from her students, her colleagues and her public. Henninge described Hanna’s facility with concealment: “When she had her public face, she put on the face she wanted the public to see.”
How many people in your life—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues—do this same thing? Perhaps you yourself are among the one-in-four Vermonters doing this exhausting dance with mental illness and trying to “pass” because the public can seem so very unforgiving.
We have got to start talking more honestly about mental illness. Now.
For those who have not suffered it, that kind of anguish is almost unfathomable. In quiet moments this week I have cried for Hanna, for her husband and her children. I can’t help but wonder if the stigma of mental illness was a barrier to true healing for Hanna. Her husband said she did seek treatment in the past few months, but it seems clear she felt limited as a well-known public figure in Vermont’s legal world and media. We live in such a small state where everyone knows each other and the gossip mill is fast and furious. Where could she turn and feel safe in anonymity?
The other night, while mulling over the horrible news about Cheryl Hanna, I unexpectedly picked up an interview with award-winning actress Glenn Close done by Jian Ghomeshi on The Best of Q, a radio program on cbcradio. Close held me in rapt attention as she discussed how and why she speaks out against the societal stigma of mental illness. She shared with Ghomeshi her own family’s experience with mental illness and addiction, and explained that she saw an important role for herself in changing the conversation. She says of her anti-stigma campaign, Bring Change 2 Mind, “I thought as a public figure I can help focus on the issue.” Close continued, “Because everybody has been so reluctant, ashamed, fearful about talking about it openly, there has been no conversation…If we talk about it enough, it will become natural.” It is part of the human experience—and all too frequent to be called anomaly.
Close donated her time and talent to narrate a free downloadable documentary of mental illness called “A New State of Mind: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness”, created by KVIE—Sacramento’s public television station. What struck me as I listened to her talk about her work was this: If open, groovy California can’t even talk about this stuff, then surely we are doomed here in the taciturn, reserved Northeast. But the Brattleboro Retreat’s “Stand up to Stigma” campaign is a strong start. We can all do much better in talking about mental illness.
What might have happened if Hanna had felt able to talk openly and honestly about her struggles? What if she hadn’t felt some obligation to be “perfect” for her colleagues, students, friends, and family? I’m certain her circle of support did everything they could to help—as much as she would give them admission to her hell. We all need to accept that highly-accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent people can still be cripplingly depressed. We should also accept that with proper treatment, they can continue to be highly accomplished, loving, lovely and powerfully intelligent. But without sufficient treatment, this disease kills as surely as diabetes or heart disease.
Enough. Please start these important conversations. Secrets and euphemisms don’t provide lasting hope for the future, just temporary ephemeral refuge. And they can be complicit in taking gifted people from us.