'Success Is Not Immune To Depression': Learning From Spade And Bourdain's Passing

We must have ongoing and open conversations about the complexities of mental health.

In the wake of recent news that both fashion designer Kate Spade, 55, and chef, author, and TV host Anthony Bourdain, 61, died by apparent suicide, fans are remembering their legacies with heartfelt social media posts. But the news has also left many with a number of questions, including: How could you experience depression when you have so much? 

As actor Bryan Cranston noted in a poignant tweet on June 8, these tragedies illustrate "that success is not immune to depression. We all need to be more aware of our friends who are suffering." 

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While it's tempting to equate happiness with success, it's apparent that a person's access to these things is no indication of their mental health state, which can be affected by a number of things, including their biology and external circumstances. Nobody is immune, and Spade and Bourdain — both beloved by their fans — are stark examples. 

"It is truly striking when such prominent individuals who seem to 'have it all' commit suicide.  Certainly, being rich and famous cannot protect someone from struggling with mental illness or emotional angst," Dr. Susan McClanahan, the  chief clinical officer at  the Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers, told A Plus via email. "[...} In our fast-paced technological world, despite the seeming connection that social media provides, there is more pressure to be perfect, successful, and happy.  Inside, people are lonely, vulnerable and struggling with existential issues such as 'What is my purpose in life?' 'How do I find meaning?,' etc.  Depression does not discriminate; there is little correlation between wealth and happiness once basic needs in life (food, security) are met. " 

Spade and Bourdain's stories only solidify our need for more open and honest conversations about the complexities of mental health and suicide. Through such conversations and education, we can move away from the stigma that many still associate with mental health issues, learn to identify the signs of someone who may be struggling or exhibiting suicidal behaviors, and when and how to seek help — something that is increasingly important.

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls depression the leading cause of disability as an estimated 350 million people worldwide are affected, and The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a June 7 report stating that suicide rates in the United States have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999 to 2016, "and mental health conditions are one of several factors contributing to suicide."

While circumstances surrounding Bourdain's death are still unclear (though he's discussed struggles with substance abuse in the past), details about Spade's struggle with anxiety and depression surfaced when her husband, Andy Spade, wrote a statement on Wednesday: "Kate suffered from depression and anxiety for many years. 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." 

While depression manifests differently from person to person, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests avoiding describing suicide as "inexplicable" or "without warning" as more often than not, people do exhibit behaviors over time that indicate they are in need of help. This is not to say Spade's family didn't do everything they could for her, but just that we should all be aware that a person experiencing depression can be happy and laughing at times and still be depressed. It is a sustained, lingering condition that can be felt at varying degrees at different points.  

Not only do we need to be better at noticing the signs, but people experiencing mental health issues must feel comfortable to speak up themselves. But as psychologist and author Adam Grant notes in his Tweet above, the taboos surrounding mental health conditions and depression often make this difficult, a sentiment echoed in Claudia Herrera's viral Facebook post about Kate Spade. 

Herrera asks why we are often made aware when prominent figures are living with some physical illness, such as cancer, but never when they are living with a mental illness. Of course, what information any person chooses to divulge is their choice, but we should pay attention to the reasons why we are so willing to share physical ailments over mental ones. 

"Until the stigma is removed from mental illness ... until society truly, authentically accepts it as an illness ... those suffering from these illnesses will continue to hide their condition," writes Herrera.  

With the passing of these two industry giants, we hope the conversation continues to bring to light how many people experience things that may put them at risk for suicidal behaviors. Anyone can be affected, and everyone should be made aware of the signs, and we, as a society, must work toward ridding any stigma associated so that people will feel just as comfortable seeking help for their mental health as they would for, say, a sore throat or a broken bone. 

If you or a loved one are in a crisis, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to speak with a skilled, trained counselor who is ready to listen to you.

Cover image via  Everett Collection and  Kathy Hutchins I Shutterstock 

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