A Tribute to Saoirse Kennedy Hill
She built solidarity and transformed stigma.
Last month, I travelled to Cape Cod for a gathering commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Special Olympics Movement. It was a beautiful event by the sea in the summer sun, an opportunity to visit with people I admire, and a time to celebrate a world-changing program that’s been a tremendous inspiration in my life.
One of the joys of the trip to the Cape was the chance to reconnect with a kind, courageous, sensitive young friend with whom I’ve long shared a bond. Saoirse Kennedy Hill decided at an early age to devote herself to the work of transforming social stigma — whether related to mental illness, sexual violence, isolation, or depression. Saoirse and I spent time together reflecting on our personal journeys, our struggles, our shared passions, and the question of how to make a meaningful impact in these complicated times. We shared sweet, vulnerable, real conversations.
Then, less than two weeks later, she was suddenly gone. Saoirse passed away on August 1st at the age of 22.
It was a poignant lesson about the fragility and unpredictability of human life. But, for me, the most important lesson was articulated by my friend Maria Shriver, a member of Saoirse’s family:
“Assume everyone is struggling.”
“Be gentle with others,” Maria wrote following the shocking news. “Treat everyone with love, tenderness, and compassion.”
Maria captured the essence of what Saoirse was working to convey through her life.
In speaking out about her personal struggles against depression and sexual assault, Saoirse was bearing a burden in order to help reduce shame and stigma for others. She founded campus support groups and stood in partnership with other survivors. She was forthright in sharing her challenges. These were important and impactful acts of empathy. She showed her strength through her struggles.
Several years ago, as a high school student at the Deerfield Academy, she published an article explaining how depression had been with her since her middle school years and how she believed it would be with her throughout her life. She explained the dynamics of how depression can create a negative feedback loop of shame and isolation. She shared how depression begets social withdrawal, and how this, in turn, creates deeper depression. Ending this vicious cycle of pain and isolation can take many kinds of intervention: professional and medical help, kindness and care from loved ones, and the power of personal resolve.
But perhaps the most necessary and under-appreciated pathway to healing can be summarized in one word: Solidarity. We need to know we’re not alone. We need to share vulnerability. We need to stand together — as families, schools, communities, societies — to end shame and stigma.
This past week, I also lost a literary hero of mine — someone I never got to meet but who nonetheless helped shape my thinking; someone who struggled through oppression and rose to inspire the world as an artistic and philosophical force. Toni Morrison articulated, perhaps better than anyone, the psychology of division and indifference that perpetuates shame and stigma. Morrison called it the impulse to “other.” She described the tendency “to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and deficient needing control….” As with racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other tendencies of exclusion, we still too often — consciously or unconsciously — deem people struggling with mental illness, depression, or trauma as “less than” the rest. It’s easier to look away than to stand in solidarity. Saoirse never looked away.
She once pointed out that we’re comfortable talking openly about physiological diseases, but we’re still fearful and ashamed to speak openly about psychological afflictions. There are barriers to the transparency and honesty that are necessary for healing. There’s an underlying current of belief that people should simply stay quiet, “deal with it,” put on a smile, and move on. This is an attitude of “othering.” It’s an attitude we have to transform.
To bring healing, to stand in solidarity, to untangle the twisted logic that produces shame and stigma, we must, as a starting point, do as Maria suggested: “Assume everyone is struggling.” To the degree that it’s possible — especially with those we know to be facing challenges — we have to try to be present, to listen deeply, to bring respect. We have to work to make our social institutions, particularly our schools and systems of care, embody tenderness and compassion.
The causes to which Saoirse devoted her life are some of the pressing issues of our times. This summer, Pew Research Center released a new study showing that teenage depression in the United States has almost doubled over the course of just the past decade. The situation is particularly severe among teenage girls. While it’s true that we can and should embark on societal-level shifts — like more funding for mental health — we can also start the journey to healing here and now.
We can start through our own attitudes, assumptions, and personal practices. We can build a society where people intuitively feel safe and free to love themselves and others. By standing in solidarity with another person — by sharing our vulnerabilities — we can help eliminate their shame and stigma. As Toni Morrison said in a 1979 commencement address, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” How poignant that the name Saoirse is Irish for “freedom.” This is the power she embodied.