Tony Hsieh’s Madness Deserved Better

The entrepreneur’s death highlights society’s role

Tony Hsieh, the beloved entrepreneur and bestselling author, died just shy of his 47th birthday due to a house fire during a time of his life that can best be described as a hazy blazing fire as well, as reports come out about his final days and months on drugs and attempting to create more utopian communities. As the founder of the online shoe retailer, Zappos, he was widely known as someone who cared immensely about his customers, colleagues, and friends.

The way we talk about his madness matters.

As it stands right now, mental health challenges are met with one of three responses from loved ones and society, none of which are helpful: the person is either 1) shunned, 2) indulged, or 3) punished.

Social norms are powerful, sometimes dangerous, and are perpetuated in our private homes but also in mass media and on our screens and personal devices.

Likewise for the media — researcher Heather Stuart of Queen University writes that film and mass media “have also been responsible for creating a vast store of negative imagery with some of the most malignant depictions of madness and horrifying illustrations of psychiatric treatments…One in four mentally ill characters kill someone, and half are portrayed as hurting others, making the mentally ill the group most likely to be involved in violence.”

These attitudes make it difficult for any person — multimillionaire or not — to open up about mental health challenges. Leaders, entrepreneurs, writers, and politicians don’t want to be associated with violence and criminality. Nobody wants that. And yet that is the very box we have put madness into.

We also need real, tangible physical spaces for people to find sanctuary when in distress. If the stigma of madness is removed, more people will seek help, and there will be more options for appropriate, compassionate care, not hospital wards or jails. It’s ironic that Tony spent so much of his energy attempting to create utopian environments. In the end no one was able to offer that back to him, to give him what he really needed.

People need to feel seen and understood and not judged; and they need to feel like their community will wait for them to get to the other side.

Tony deserved better. Let his life, and his death, be a reminder that madness often comes with light and genius, and that it is up to us to harness more of the good, and let the dark be less weighty on those who bear it.

Author, Divergent Mind (HarperCollins). Journalist at UC Berkeley & Garrison. Founder, The Neurodiversity Project. divergentlit.com

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