Celebrity Suicides Raise More Questions Than Answers
News of the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade on June 4th, followed by popular celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on June 8th shocked many. And in the same week, the CDC released research that shows suicide rates are rising at an alarming rate.
Why These Suicides?
Kate Spade’s husband Andy told media that Kate had been suffering from depression and anxiety before taking her life and was seeking help for her mental illness.
“She was actively seeking help and working closely with her doctors to treat her disease, one that takes far too many lives. We were in touch with her the night before and she sounded happy. There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock. And it clearly wasn’t her. There were personal demons she was battling.”
In Bourdain’s case, while he was reportedly said to have been “regularly suicidal” after his first marriage ended and was reportedly “exhausted”, his suicide still came as a big shock to most who knew him personally.
Bourdain’s mother, Gladys, 83, told The Post. “It’s really too difficult,” she said. “He was an incredible guy. I really can’t talk about him … He was brilliant and sharp and funny,” she said. “He is the last person in the world I’d imagine doing something like that.”
Other leading personalities have weighed in about their own struggles since the news broke. Jada Pinkett Smith opened up again (she has spoken publicly about her own struggles in the past years) in an Instagram post dedicated to the late designer and chef.
“With the suicides of Kate and Anthony it brought up feelings of when I was in such despair and had considered the same demise…often,” she wrote. “In the years, I spent towards my healing, many moons ago, I realized the mind and heart can be extremely delicate without the foundation of a formidable spirit. What I eat, what I watch on TV, what music I listen to, how I care for my body, my spiritual practice, what people I surround myself with, the amount of stress I allow and so on… either contribute to or deteriorate my mental health. Mental health is a daily practice for me. It’s a practice of deep self-love.” She continued, “May Kate and Anthony Rest in Peace. Many may not understand… but I do, and this morning I have the deepest gratitude that I pulled through.”
Already back in 2014 actor and comedian Robin Williams‘ apparent suicide focused more attention on the challenges of treating depression and other psychological disorders. While Williams had been open about his long-term battle with alcoholism and cocaine addiction, he was less public about his mental health issues or what treatment he sought. His publicist told media the day Williams died, that the comic actor suffered from severe depression.
In all these very public deaths, there remains many unanswered questions. Also each had the financial power and influence to get the best possible care and yet tragedy still struck. And in some respects it almost seems perverse that it takes celebrities’ suicides to raise much needed awareness about the rise in suicide rates as well as demonstrating just how complex an issue this is.
Indeed, depression or other types of mood disorders strike one in five American adults during their lifetimes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a survey which has illustrated just how serious the situation has become. Suicide rates have increased by 25 percent across the United States of America over the last two decades. Some 25 states saw more than a 30 percent increase in suicides during that time.
No diagnosis of a mental condition
Of even greater concern, is that more than half of the people who died of suicide had not been diagnosed with any type of mental condition.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, is the principal deputy director of the CDC. Referring to the CDC report she concurred that “These findings are disturbing. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the US right now, and it’s one of three causes that is actually increasing recently, so we do consider it a public health problem — and something that is all around us.”
Incidentally, the other two top 10 causes of death on the rise are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdoses.
Suicides Are Becoming More Frequent
Dr Schuchat says the CDC data confirms that suicide rates are getting worse. “The most common method was firearm, followed by hanging or suffocation, then followed by poisoning,” Schuchat said. “Opioids were present in 31% of individuals who died by poisoning.” She added that intentionality is difficult to determine in cases in which a person dies by overdose.
These data, derived from the National Violent Death Reporting System, showed that 54% of those who committed suicide in 2015 did not have a known mental health condition. The researchers found that several circumstances, including the loss of (or problems in) a relationship, were more likely to trigger a suicide among those who did not have a mental health condition.
There are many factors which contribute to suicide among those with and without mental health conditions
- Relationship problem (42%)
- Problematic substance use (28%)
- Crisis in the past or upcoming two weeks (29%)
- Criminal legal problem (9%)
- Physical health problem (22%)
- Loss of housing (4%)
- Job/Financial problem (16%)
Schuchat admits, “We don’t have all the answers. There may be several, but we knew that economic factors can increase the risk of suicide and that limited access to care, behavioral and social services may also increase the risk of suicide.”
Recent government reports have highlighted rising rates of suicide among women. “The percent increase was higher in women, but it’s important to say that men have a three to five times higher rate than women,” Schuchat said. The rising suicide rate for women, then, is “increasing but at a much, much lower level” than for men.
Veterans are also “over represented” in the report, she said.
“Veterans made up about 18% of adult suicides but represent about 8.5% of the US adult population,” Schuchat said, noting that not all veterans who died by suicide were recent veterans. Still, the researchers found a 10% higher risk of suicide among people who had served in the military.
Middle-age adults had the highest increase.
“This is a very important population right now in terms of national statistics,” Schuchat said, noting the high rates of drug overdose in this group as well as “deaths of despair” described in social science literature. She believes this group may have been hardest-hit by the economic downturn, but she added that unknown factors probably contributed.
“The paper makes a clear case, correctly, about the fact that there is no one cause for suicide,” she said, adding that “availability of means” makes death possible A lot of suicide is a one-time effort, so having guns available, for example, makes one more likely to complete suicide, but that in and of itself is not an explanation for why suicide is going up.”
There is no single cause for suicide
The CDC data shows that suicide happens to everybody. Although social, life and economic stressors are the ones that create the conditions for suicides to happen.
And there’s no apparent single cause for suicide. Suicide most often occurs when stress and health issues converge to create an experience of hopelessness and despair. Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, and it is often undiagnosed or untreated.
As the researchers concluded, “Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance problems, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide. Yet it’s important to note that most people who actively manage their mental health conditions go on to engage in life.”
A hidden illness
At the time of Robin William’s death, Dr. Winston Chung, medical director of inpatient psychiatry at California Pacific Medical Center told SFGate.com that researchers need to understand more about the biology of mental health issues to reduce the stigma and produce more accurate treatments.
Chung said more research and money needs to be put into finding biological markers and genetic traits for mental health problems.
“With cancer, you can see the cells under the microscope. In depression, you can’t see it. There’s no broken bone, no radiological finding,” he said. “We need to have concrete evidence, not unlike the cancer cell. Something we can see and reliably associate with mental health issues.”
Such research could help determine why some people respond better to one medication than another or why some patients are resistant to treatment, said Lea Williams, a Stanford clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor who specializes in depression.
As medical research gets better at determining which cancer tumor will respond better to therapies, the same biological understanding has to happen in mental health, she said. Depression, like other illnesses, isn’t about willpower.
“They’re all complex diseases,” she said. “But, with depression, there’s still that idea that it’s something you can fix yourself just by trying.”
David E. Olson is Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry; Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine; Centre for Neuroscience, University of California. He has been leading a study to understand depression and treatment protocols. In a recent blog post he confirmed what many specialists have been raising about the complexity of depression. “Thanks to studies on ketamine, slow-acting antidepressants and chronic stress models of depression, scientists now know that depression is not simply the result of a “chemical imbalance,” as pharmaceutical companies like to suggest. It is far more complicated and involves structural changes in key neural circuits that regulate emotion, anxiety, memory and reward.
He mentions one of the hallmarks of depression is the atrophy of neurons in the prefrontal cortex – a region of the brain that controls anxiety and regulates mood among other things. Basically, these branches and spines shrivel up, disconnecting from other neurons in the brain
“To me, it’s obvious that we need to understand how these powerful compounds affect the brain, in both positive and negative ways, if we hope to fully comprehend the fundamental laws governing how the nervous system works and how to fix it when it doesn’t.”
Summing up the findings of the CDC’s research, Schuchat says, “We think a key message is, there’s not just one group; many are at risk. Whether or not they had a mental health condition, most people who died by suicide had experienced “one or more factors that may have contributed, including a relationship problem, a crisis in the recent couple weeks and problematic substance abuse,” she said.
Shuchat said there are simple steps anyone can take to help someone at risk. “Beginning a conversation, helping keep them safe, helping them connect and then follow up with them,” she said. “We don’t think every single suicide can be prevented, but many are preventable.
What is leading to these suicides?
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention raises awareness, funds scientific research and provides resources and aid to those affected by suicide.
This is their check list for risk factors and warning sides.
Suicide warning signs
Something to look out for when concerned that a person may be suicidal is a change in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This is of sharpest concern if the new or changed behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or change. Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.
If a person talks about:
- Killing themselves
- Feeling hopeless
- Having no reason to live
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Unbearable pain
Behaviors that may signal risk, especially if related to a painful event, loss or change:
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to end their lives, such as searching online for methods
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods:
- Loss of interest
- Relief/Sudden Improvement
Suicide Risk Factors
Risk factors are characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life.
- Mental health conditions
- Substance use problems
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality traits of aggression, mood changes and poor relationships
- Conduct disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Serious physical health conditions including pain
- Traumatic brain injury
- Environmental Factors
- Access to lethal means including firearms and drugs
- Prolonged stress, such as harassment, bullying, relationship problems or unemployment
- Stressful life events, like rejection, divorce, financial crisis, other life transitions or loss
- Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
- Historical Factors
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Childhood abuse, neglect or trauma
Suicides need more empathy and open discussion
Oprah added her voice to the many who rallied around Bourdain and Spade saying, “Every death, not just Anthony Bourdain, not just Kate Spade, not just people who are famous and names that we know … every death is here to teach us how to live better. Every death is here to remind us of our own life and the value of it. So, what will come of these deaths in sequence like this, the suicides, is a more open desire to talk about it. There are lots and lots of people who have not been forthcoming because they are ashamed still of talking about mental illness in their family and mental illness in people around them, but it is serious and it is real.”
Suicide is a subject that requires much more empathy, consideration, research, support and open discussion, among friends, families, at places of learning, in health facilities and in the workplace. Sharing experiences and information will help to remove the stigma faced by not just those who are suffering, but also importantly the families left behind by those who have taken their lives.
If you would like to read and understand more about this topic, then click on this very personal and insightful account by a father who lost his fourteen-year old son to suicide.
There is also a crisis text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
The lines are staffed by a mix of paid professionals and unpaid volunteers trained in crisis and suicide intervention. The confidential environment, the 24-hour accessibility, a caller’s ability to hang up at any time and the person-cantered care have helped its success, advocates say.
The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world or you can search online for a local organization in your country or neighborhood.
Above all, please seek help.