Can Bad Press Lead to Suicide Among the Mentally Ill?
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Can Bad Press Lead to Suicide Among the Mentally Ill?


Not to state the obvious but when you suffer from mental illness, issues that may not pummel the average Joe can send you reeling. In the case of hotshot biotech entrepreneur Austin Heinz, it was a journalist dragging his name through the mud that ended up doing the trick.

The Story

Heinz was a tenacious 31-year-old owner of the bioengineering startup Cambrian Genomics who was responsible for developing laser DNA printing that helped democratize synthetic DNA access. But he also helped create a probiotic supplement for women for the startup Sweet Peach, a product meant to ward off vaginal infections and the development of microorganisms.

But when Heinz delivered a presentation on the product at the 2014 DEMO conference in San Jose, he put his foot in his mouth big time.

He told the audience that the product was designed to make smelly vaginas smell…well…like peaches. Unfortunately for Heinz, the audience was packed with journalists.

“The idea is personal empowerment,” he said during the presentation. “All your smells are not human. They’re produced by the creatures that live on you.

Journalist Jeff Bercovici at Inc. slammed the presentation in a post he titled “These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit.” Bercovici points out the glaring sexism in Silicon Valley, and how these comments by Heinz were just added proof that the world of tech startups was really a backward’s boys’ club.

Bercovici’s article, among others, went quasi-viral, and, in the end, investors pulled money out of Heinz’s own startup, after which he retracted his statements.

But from there, Heinz unraveled, plummeting into depression. It turns out he suffered from bipolar disorder, and the shitty media coverage really took a toll on his psyche.
“He took it pretty hard,” Heinz’s friend Mike Alfred told Business Insider. “No matter how tough you thought Austen was, getting beat up in the press is hard on anyone. In particular, someone who is prone to depression, you start to get sucked into that. He started to believe that meant the company wasn’t going to work.”
On May 24, 2015, Heinz hanged himself.

The Story Behind the Story

Bercovici had no idea that Heinz was bipolar when he wrote the piece. After news of Heinz’s suicide broke, he wrote a follow-up piece for Inc titled “Why We Need to Talk More About Mental Illness in Tech and Business.”
In the article, Bercovici admits his sister was bipolar and that many of Heinz’s personality traits that he brushed off as signature quirks of a hot young tech star—bravado, grandiosity, impulsivity, loquacity—were also signature traits of bipolar disorder. Not only was Bercovici familiar with the illness but his sister committed suicide six years after receiving the diagnosis.
“Had I known that Heinz was bipolar,” wrote Bercovici in his second piece, “I would have interpreted much of what he said through a different lens”.
So he gets it. And he felt pretty remorseful knowing his negative press may have play a role in Heinz’s suicide.

A Call to Action

It was ballsy of Berocivi to go on record and admit that his coverage of Heinz may have contributed to his death. Of course, at the end of the day, Heinz was responsible for himself, just like anyone with mental illness, so in my mind Berocivi doesn’t exactly have blood on his hands.

Still, why not take extra care to avoid such situations in the future? Why not take a minute, pause and reflect before going for an attack, whether it’s online or IRL? Why not accept the fact that not everyone is equipped to handle evisceration? The more we can bring mental illness—the most prevalent illness impacting society today—into the cultural conversation, the more we can remind people that it’s better to err on the side of caution than destroy a person’s career, business or entire future.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.