A Note on the Tragic Deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain
The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – occurring just three days apart – were yet another wakeup call. Many are speaking out about mental illness for the first time – an upside to such tragedy – but still others are quietly spiraling into what feels like a place of personal defeat. The public response to these events has been unprecedented as fans grapple with how such colorful, iconic people died by what is widely viewed as an act of their own volition. Sadly, they both contended with illnesses that can take control of and slowly destroy an otherwise healthy person’s quality of life.
I admit that it has taken me longer than it should have to write this. Finding the appropriate thing to say to all those affected can be difficult. This is a community of people with such varied experiences; some have struggled personally, others have seen family members suffer – the list goes on and on – but we have all gathered here in harmony and solidarity. The reality is that I too feel deeply in these moments and trying to wrap my head around them can be as difficult for me as it may be for you. For some reason, I found it challenging at first to find my usual warmth, usual “humanness,” as I wrote this. I tried to find reason in deaths that feel so lonely, sad, and from what I have heard repeatedly, isolating. Sometimes, under these sorts of circumstances, it is easier to present statistics than to dig deep. But, I came back to it and found clarity as I reflected on the love I see every day in this community. The truth is, I am angry; angry that so many lives have been compromised or lost, that so many people feel alone by nature of stigma, that such little attention was paid to these issues previously, and that the most disadvantaged still don’t have access to the help and resources they need.
Many people are trying to comprehend how mental illness could have driven Spade and Bourdain, two quintessential symbols of success, to a place of such despair. To challenge this mindset, I consider my own experience with mental illness and friendship with other sufferers. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned is that this is not an ‘us versus them’ situation. This is an ‘all of us’ sort of crisis and we need to start looking at it as such. Every one of us knows someone with a mental illness. In my case, it took time, self-love, and reassurance to unlearn the ‘privilege equals happiness’ mentality, and I have had to accept that the human brain is not selective in who gets a harder hand. Having a luxurious life does not exempt you from the most agonizing parts of the human experience.
What these tragedies boil down to is the prevalence of a medical condition that can affect people of every age, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. However we identify, each one of us has a unique set of pressures and expectations which all play into the complexities of our brain chemistry as we develop and adapt to changing circumstances. At one time I felt an immense amount of guilt for my pain; it was unfair, I believed, to have so much but still be so sad. I was comforted by the words of Frank Bruni – Opinion Columnist for the New York Times – who addresses with exceptional poise what has so many people at a loss right now: “But [Bourdain’s] death, coming just days after the suicide of the beloved designer Kate Spade, is at least as noteworthy for another reason: how powerfully it speaks to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.” I came across this article as I was trying, with limited success, to put my own feelings and insight into one cohesive post. Bruni shed light on the sort of mass-hysteria-response many have had to these events, which co-occurred with the release of startling new findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Just one day after Spade’s suicide, the CDC released a timely report which demonstrates a 25% increase in suicide deaths since 1999. Two days later, Anthony Bourdain was also dead. A media frenzy ensued and reports on this cataclysmic rise finally conveyed an appropriate sense of urgency. Reporters have tremendous power of influence in how the future of this delicate issue plays out. Each tragedy presents a precious opportunity for reporters; they can play a significant role in delivering news that benefits us all, or they can do just the opposite. In this case, many have chosen to capitalize on the level of detail released by law enforcement officials in order to be credited with the ‘best story.’ The problem is: an excessive use of detail in the reporting of high profile suicides may have seriously detrimental repercussions. There is robust evidence showing that mental illness sufferers – especially children and teenagers – are vulnerable to replicating suicidal behavior after exposure to detailed information about the suicides of others. The phenomenon has been coined “suicide contagion.” Sadly, while showing increased concern over rising suicide statistics, the media has taken a counteractive approach by pushing content that directly puts readers at risk.
While many mourned the loss of Robin Williams years ago, few actually mobilized for change. The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – in conjunction with the CDC’s report – seem to have galvanized us into action in new ways. These events have uncovered a level of fear and uncertainty in many of us as we wonder what chance we have if such tremendous success stories have ended in absolute heartbreak. Each one of us can commit to making an effort in our own lives to dispel fear and lost hope in our friends and family as we move forward. It is easy to forget the pressures that come with the sort of fame Spade and Bourdain justly earned. While loss like this can leave fans feeling emotionally compromised, it is crucial to remember that our ability to cope and survive is not, and cannot be, contingent on the survival of our heroes.
I have never before seen as many posts displaying the suicide hotline number as I did last week. While knowledge of this number is important, it can be easily accessed, and direct interpersonal support is most vital at this time. Many become overwhelmed by the idea that they can take action on an individual level to help reverse the epidemic of silence around mental illness. I believe the best place to start is by extending compassion to those who may be struggling, including those we find hardest to get a read on. Humans often use a façade of emotional vacancy as a coping mechanism for something much deeper and more sinister. As hard as it may be, it is important to remember that this is the case as we encounter new people.
I never take for granted what a privilege it is to be able to speak publicly about my battles and to have amassed such a far-reaching web of unconditional support. If you haven’t yet found an appropriate forum, aren’t ready, or don’t wish to share your story, know that I am always here. If there is one thing you can do as you search for hope and answers, it is to be a listener and active participant in this movement toward compassion and transparency. If you think someone is struggling with these events, ask. What may initially appear to be discomfort will fade because there isn’t a person out there who doesn’t crave love, acceptance, validation, understanding, and sometimes, a little help. Every person lost to suicide (celebrity, or not) has family and friends who love them dearly; while it is easy to forget this as we flip through the news, we must never become hardened to the basic humanness and reality of that experience.