Little People, Big Depression
I want to start off this column by saying I hate the title I’ve given it. I hate the average height public’s obsession with Little People (LP or LPs) and the “Little/Big” dichotomy. (It honestly makes you all seem even weirder than I thought you were before TLC became “The Little Channel.”) I blame reality television for the continued exploitation of my community. But I want this piece to be read by all of you therefore I chose a title that’s like catnip for the nondisabled public. Congratulations!! You have fallen into my trap.
Suicide is a huge issue within the dwarfism community and until recently discussions of mental health have really been seen as a taboo subject. Something that’s talked about in the darkness of the hotel room with your friends at 4 o’clock in the morning after a convention or regional, whispered over hushed tones over the telephone when you found out that yet another one of your friends is gone. With every death that is chalked up to an “accidental overdose” of pain meds, anxiety drugs, and alcohol, you wonder really how accidental it was. The first and only time I’ve seen the issue discussed outside of the LP community what’s when I watched the movie “In Bruges” Colin Farrell makes a comment to a Little Person actor that he had heard that LP actors tended to commit suicide at a very high rate. I wonder who the director or screenwriter knew that lead him to this conclusion.
I don’t think that a majority of my community are depressed because they’re little people, however I have no doubt that society’s objectification of little people adds insult to injury (literally) and can push folks over the edge. No amount of therapy is going to fix the behavior of the average height public when you catch them taking a photograph of you climbing in and out of your car or diving in the open-top freezer at the grocery store for a pack of chicken thighs. You know it’s going to be on Instagram at the end of the day with a witty remark akin to that of the “circus being in town.” No prescription for an antidepressant can remedy the discrimination you feel when your boss chooses someone less qualified than you when it comes to a potential promotion. Ableism can compound feelings of isolation and hopelessness to a lot of people.
80% of LPs are born into families with no one else with dwarfism, no one else who can relate to the feelings of loneliness and they can lament to about the teasing I will or who won’t give you the usual “sticks and stones” or “be the bigger person” lecture, which in itself is it some sick joke. Our national organization Little People of America has finally begun take this issue seriously over the last few years and has set up crisis intervention teams to engage with folks feeling depressed at our annual conference, but this is only one week a year. I also can’t help but feel that the individuals that need the help the most are not crowded onto the dance floor twerking to “Baby Got Back” at a Tier one city on an annual basis.
I think the first time I was made aware of the propensity of Little People to kill themselves was when my mom lost her first love in 1989. Unlike the 80% discussed above I grew up in a family of the 20% where both of my parents for little people. They met at a national convention in the 70s and married soon after. At the point of the suicide of my moms first crush my parents were already separated and my father passed away shortly thereafter. I remember my mom’s reaction to P’s death. She was devastated but also angry, so angry that yet another friend of hers had passed away instead of seeking help. (She had a Masters in Counseling and Psychology and was an ardent advocate for caring for mental health with the same level of urgency as physical health.) I remember her telling me that this is also something that was far too common in the dwarfism community and something that we honestly didn’t talk about enough. She hoped that I would never have to go through what she was going through, watching friend after friend die. It was less than a year later when actor David Rappaport killed himself and I lost my first hero. David had been a breakout star and one of my favorite movies “Time Bandits” and was the first dwarf actor to have lead billing on his own TV show, CBS’s short lived “the wizard.” When Netflix launch the campaign #thefirsttimeIsawme, David immediately came to my mind. His characters were complex, smart, creative, and snarky not any different from the real little people that I knew in my own life, but they’re always tinged with a bit of sadness. David was also the first time ever wrote fan mail and I remember as a kid feeling so cheated by his death, feeling that people like me finally had someone to look up to, someone that would not embarrass us on the television and someone that was playing a real human being, not an elf, a troll, or someone who’s dwarfism was obscured by a costume. Since David’s death many more little people, actors and non-actors, have committed suicide. I’ve lost countless more friends than 10-year-old Rebecca the fangirl could’ve ever guessed (including the first person I seriously dated in the LP community.) Both men and women, but many more men. As the mom of two dwarf children I find myself thinking constantly about their mental health and as they get older I will remind them, as my own mother did, that seeking treatment for your mental or emotional state is just as critical as seeking treatment for a toothache, a broken leg, or any other apparent ailment.
So why is it important to me that average height/non-disabled people read this piece? Because like it or not, you all are the majority of society. How the world thinks about disability, mental health, suicide, dwarfism, is largely dependent on all of you. While I can shake my fist at my community and ask them to do better, to talk about it more, to destigmatize, at the end of the day there is also responsibility at the nondisabled community has when it comes to talking about the disability community and suicide.
I wonder if you’ve noticed how you react to the suicide of disabled people. If a nondisabled person in your life commit suicide or threatened suicide the first instinct is to automatically get them help. You tell them to seek assistance, see a therapist, call 911, but first and foremost to remember that their life is worth living. Now ask yourself if you do the same for disabled people. My answer? Nope.
Mainstream society reacts differently to disabled person killing themselves than a nondisabled person. When a disabled person commits suicide you typically respond with “well now they’re in a better place.” Or “God has made little jimmy walk now (If Jimmy used a wheelchair.)” Even when eulogizing a disabled person nondisabled people find it appropriate to erase their disability or minimize their difference “he was small, but the biggest person I ever knew” or “In Heaven everyone is beautiful.” You even have the audacity to attack us, DISABLED PEOPLE, when we encourage a person with a disability to get the help and supports they need to live instead of kill themselves (see: Jerika Bolen.)
Disabled people would have no reason to think their lives are not worth living or lack dignity if it weren’t for nondisabled people and a society grounded in ableism. For Suicide Prevention month I sincerely hope you’ll take this message to heart and internalize the idea every life matters every life has dignity and that includes the 57 million lives of Americans with Disabilities. So, if you have a friend or family member with a disability who’s depressed, encourage them to seek out help in whatever form they find appropriate.
Check out #LiveOn , a campaign was created to address these issues and bring to the table a topic that is often hard to discuss.