Editorial: Catalysts for Change – Who I’m Grateful To This Thanksgiving

Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chester Bennington, and Robin Williams. Sharon Markovitz, Batsheva Stadlan, Chazz Petrella and recently Channing Smith. All of these wonderful people – the last three of which just teenagers – have sadly been lost to suicide. Those survived by them all made a decision that can almost be described as puzzling. They decided not to hide their loved one’s cause of death. These are the absolute outliers.

Icons lost to suicide from left to right: Kurt Cobain, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, and Alexander McQueen

Cover-Up Culture

In a society that delights with a good cover-up, one can be quite hard to come by due to the simple reality that executing it typically requires several willing and capable conspirators. However, one area where a cover-up is often a default opportunity is suicide. In a Forward article I penned, Shanee Markovitz describes the stunning ease with which she was offered a cover-up on the morning she lost her mother Sharon Markovitz to suicide:

“A Rabbi, a psychologist and a few family friends gently told us, ‘Anything you say (about your mother), you can’t take back. Maybe just say she died suddenly.’ The idea of covering up the suicide with a heart attack came up. They were trying to protect us from the thick stigma and deep scrutiny everyone thinks they will face in this situation. On the morning of the worst day of my life, I was offered silence. It was handed to me on a silver platter. It was glowing.”

After considering the temptation, Shanee and her father rejected the cover-up. As she put it, “Silence was everything that led up to this horrifying moment.” Since Shanee spoke those words, they have struck a nerve I cannot shake. Being silent about mental illness served only to enable the most horrifying outcome.

Deciding We Want Better

In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death among those aged 10-34, accounting for more deaths than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. Clearly, these statistics do not stack up to the number of suicides in this demographic a typical person knows about. With this in mind, it is mind-numbing and scary to consider all the suicides just in my orbit which may have been portrayed as a sudden heart attack or something similar.

We can do better than suicide being the second leading cause of death among our teens and young adults. And change can only take place once the problem is not being actively covered up.

Unless for extenuating circumstances and as difficult as it may be, I implore those who lose someone to suicide not to hide the cause of death. While I cannot fathom your grief – as long as silence wins, critical change loses. The same applies to anybody battling mental illness. After all, true shame or weakness associated with suicide or mental illness exists only to the extent we allow it to. Let’s make sure our community leaders, teachers, and societal leaders have no choice but to confront the suicide and mental illness epidemic by drowning them in people’s truths they can no longer hide from.

Channing Smith, lost to Suicide on September 22, 2019 at the age of 16

Thank You

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful to those who decided to reject a cover-up of a loved one’s suicide. I suspect the decision was challenging, but I know it can be the catalyst for change which saves a life.

Thank you to the family of super-chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain.

Thank you to the family of rock legend and lead Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington.

Thank you to the family of fashion icon Kate Spade.

Thank you to the family of the larger-than-life comedian Robin Williams.

Thank you to the family of the sports enthusiast and “boy who should have lived” 12-year-old Chazz Petrella.

Thank you to the family of the unwaveringly charitable 18-year-old Batsheva Stadlan.

Thank you to the family of the 16-year-old whose story has overtaken the country with grief Channing Smith. 

Thank you to the family of what is surely a remarkably proud mother Sharon Markovitz.

Truly, I am grateful.

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