The Tragedy and Dangers of High-Profile Suicides
What do the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain reveal?
Posted June 8, 2018
It’s difficult to write something uplifting when something tragic happens. While the tragedy of suicide occurs every day around the world (with one suicide attempt every 29 seconds that has been reported), the back to back deaths of worldwide icons Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain feel like the deaths of more than two people. It represents the death of a dream and causes one to pause in confusion by the incomprehensibility that such renowned people could choose to exit life in a devastating and shocking way.
To most people, both legends appear to have had everything one could imagine—children, job and monetary security, achievement, and access to a lifestyle that many long for yet few will ever experience. Because Spade and Bourdain represent the pinnacle of success and inspire so many, they have become role models to the masses, suggesting a promise that hard work can pay off and dreams can come true. Their lives have served like a light at the end of the tunnel for multitudes, so the frightening question that pierces the veil for anyone in despair becomes, “If they couldn’t handle this world, why should I?”
That is why this is a vulnerable time. Whenever a public tragedy occurs—especially a notable suicide—the risk for deaths by accidents, suicides and murders significantly increases among the masses along with increases in depression, anxiety and aggression. You could say there’s a contagious aspect to it.
Over the next days and weeks, you will see a lot of information posted about mental illness and suicide prevention. People will posit theories as to what happened, possibly in an attempt to understand the unfathomable. (When people feel out of control, they try to take control…it’s in our human nature to seek answers and categorize information so that we have answers and a sense of control.) While I agree with many of my colleagues in the mental health profession that urge people to seek help and to understand that depression, addiction, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, and other mood and personality disorders can have a heightened risk for suicide, I’m going to take a different tact in this post. Rather than looking at the individuals, I’d like to call attention to the current state of the world.
Not only are we in the midst of extreme change (there is more change in this one decade than in the first three decades of the Industrial Revolution—and with change comes a sense of heightened instability), long-term job security is a thing of the past. Depression, addiction and suicide-related deaths are increasing (see my post last year about Baby Boomers having shortened life spans and another on suicides and addiction), child abuse is on the rise (yet another post on the rise in child abuse here), a tsunami of school and public shootings is blanketing the U.S. as ferociously as the desert heat. That’s just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t even touch the divisive political landscape and global fears around terrorism, nuclear attack, and diminished power. Nor does it touch on the treacherous relationship regions of marital, family, friendship, and dating life.
When people feel out of control, they try to take control.
There are a lot of reasons to feel out of control and they are all legitimate. As a result, fear steadily hums along just under our radar. Or it flat out smacks us into a state of malaise. In despair, we become physiologically aroused to the point that we can’t escape ourselves. It’s like something invisible inside is bleeding to death yet no one can see it. We can’t see it either; we just feel it’s burning pain. When someone is in pain like that, they cannot tend to anyone or consider their needs. They are simply trying to stop the pain. Sometimes it’s by dissociating and doing some form of work or activity (which can be positively reinforced because workaholism is revered in the U.S.). Yet other times it can be self-sabotaging as seen when people reach for alcohol, drugs, compulsive shopping, gambling, sex, food, endless television and computer activity, and the like.
Is it at all possible that many of the increasing challenges we observe in people are typical negative reinforcements observed in a system that maintains a dysfunctional status quo? Is it possible that the current state of the broader American family has become increasingly more dysfunctional?
Years ago, philosopher Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind where one of his sub-points highlighted that the U.S. Founders based the enduring success of democracy on the foundation that the family and community would take care of its members. In other words, the U.S. Constitution was built on the collaborative notion that WE are in it together. In fact, the concept of WE was critical because the new country was composed of disparate members that had left their countries of origin and now needed to form new bonds with others as a greater community family whose familial connection was the blood of freedom (obviously this overlooks that these freedoms were at the expense of others, including the overtaking of numerous Native Americans tribes). Still, the American culture that was set in place was one based on a community of WE.
One of the phenomena that has transpired over the past 240 years is the changing of the American community and family. After years of moving for work and colonizing other areas, America entered two world wars. Women entered the workforce and children increasingly needed outside care. Simultaneously, divorce—which was considered a threat to the public interest—began to rise in the 20th century, with the U.S. taking the lead in divorces by 1916 (Now the U.S. is only 3rd after the Maldives and Belarus).
With increasing rates of divorced families and general mobility of both parents relocating to new communities to find work coupled with the rise in technology (television, computer and cell phones), the culture of WE has shifted into a culture of I. The birth of the latch-key kid and television as babysitter (now cellphones and tablets in the hands of babes) has given birth to a new level of independence.
“Since no one is looking out for me, I have to look out for me.”
The consequences of this rather monumental cultural shift are somewhat unknown as change is occurring at such an accelerated pace. The field of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation have made science fiction movies seem more like documentaries. My research and my biases and values incline me to believe we need to stop and connect with our loved ones. When nervous systems go awry, we need the security to know that we can count on our loved ones. We need to hold our babies and give them the attention and touch and safety they need so that they can develop healthy nervous systems that can provide soothing later in life during times of stress. We need to stop and connect with each other and look into each other’s eyes to remind them that they matter and that you see them—and let them see you. We need a place where we can be safe and loved and cherished, for research shows we are our healthiest and most resilient when we have that.
If you are reading this article and growing sad because you feel you don’t have these things then I urge you to try to be there for someone else. If you are in a dark place of despair, I doubly urge you to be brave and shine your light. From one Soul to another, you are not alone. Breathe. Find something, if only one thing, that makes you grateful this one moment. We can never truly know why a Soul would commit a tragic suicide. Are they canaries in a coal mine giving us a wake-up call? We can try to empathize and we can even come dangerously close to committing the same frightening act, yet we can also do something different—as an individual or a bystander. We can think of others and try to change the greater family system by sharing love, compassion, acceptance, and being fully present to each other in a world that provokes the opposite.