On June 5th, we lost the iconic 55-year-old fashion designer Kate Spade to suicide. She left her husband and 13-year-old daughter behind. Spade was known for her bright and cheerful designs, was successful and seemingly in the prime of her life.
On June 8th, we lost super-chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain to suicide. Bourdain had been the host of CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” since its premiere in 2013. The travel and food series has won several Emmy Awards as well as a 2013 Peabody Award. Bourdain left behind his 11-year-old daughter, girlfriend, and two ex-wives.
It seems like just yesterday beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams took his life. We are coming up on the one year anniversary of losing the iconic Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington to suicide.
This is far from just a celebrity crisis. A study by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that suicide rates have gone up by more than 30% in half of the states since 1999, culminating in a staggering 45,000 reported suicides in America in 2016. These are just the suicides that were reported. Countless suicides go unreported for fear of stigmatic repercussions on the family members left behind, whether in schools, jobs, or the dating realm.
How We Can Do Better
In the wake of these tragedies, it’s natural to ask questions. How could they do this to their loved ones? How is it possible that someone with so much money and stardom could want to end their life? The point missed by these questions is that the suicides were not logical, natural decisions. As is generally the case with suicide, these lives were lost by people whose minds and thinking patterns had likely been compromised by mental illness, people who could not turn to their family, friends, or society to get support or treatment for fear of the ramifications and embarrassment.
If we are going to start helping those who need our help most, the first step is to cultivate an environment which is conducive to them feeling comfortable being honest about needing help. The same CDC study found that over half of those whose death was reported as a suicide did not have a known mental health condition. Over half. Over half of those who were likely at least to some extent battling mental illness felt they could not seek help.
Perhaps most alarming and tragic about Bourdain’s death is that it retrospectively seems he did reach out for help. In an interview with PEOPLE just this past February, the food extraordinaire revealed he had contemplated suicide several times. “There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run — why not just do this stupid thing… jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth,'” Bourdain told the magazine. He offered that he felt “some responsibility” to “at least try to live” after welcoming his daughter, Ariane, now 11, with ex-wife Ottavia Busia in 2007.
We let these troubling comments slide by our radar. We thought a guy as successful as Bourdain couldn’t possibly be struggling with depression, mental illness, something our society views as weakness. If we treated mental illness as an illness just like cancer is an illness then we would know that fame, popularity, or money does not make someone immune from it. Then we would lose less lives.
Let’s Help Our Children
If we are to approach mental illness as just that, an illness, then perhaps it’s time we start educating our children about mental health like we do with physical health. How is it that a child can make his or her way entirely through high school without as much as seeing the words Social Anxiety Disorder or Depression in a textbook? It in no way protects them to stifle talk of suicide and mental health. In fact, it does the opposite. It cripples their chances of being able to identify what is going on should they experience mental illness in their childhood or teenage years.
One simple and important way we can educate our children about mental health is by demonstrating its importance firsthand. We take our children at least once a year to physical health doctors and teeth doctors and eye doctors simply as a precaution to make sure everything is as it should be be. Perhaps the doctor will catch something and be able to quickly react. Let’s start valuing our children’s brain to the same extent as their teeth and take them for yearly checkups on their brain, their mental health, to a psychiatrist.
The questions we should be asking in the wake of tragedies like Bourdain’s and Spade’s is when is it time to try a new approach? When do we no longer continue to simply wait for the day when our child is in their teens and they tell us they have not felt right for some time but had no idea what it could be, as they had no idea what mental illness actually is? Or worse, when do we stop waiting until it’s too late?
This is Just a Start
Rethinking how we view mental illness and how we approach our children only scrapes the surface of the changes we cannot wait any longer to make. For a broader view on how we can do better, please read the article I recently published in the Forward featuring insights from Refuat Hanefesh’s Founding Vice President Shanee Markovitz.
Please click here to read Etan Neiman’s other editorials and pieces
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