When it Comes to Suicide, Celebrities are People, too
The public struggles to understand that success does not prevent depression.
Posted June 9, 2018
It seems that this past few days wherever I am, people want to discuss the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. This is human nature for people to wonder why such successful celebrities would want to take their own highly privileged life. I listen and nod and but inside I know that suicide is an act that most people will not comprehend.
I was first exposed to suicide when I was a psychology intern at Brown University. A patient that I followed on the inpatient unit, eloped from the unit and went to a private bathroom in the hospital and hanged himself. I had spoken with him the previous day and he appeared more withdrawn but the idea that he would take his own life never crossed my mind. In retrospect, he was at high risk, having already survived a previous attempt, he was rescued after jumping off a bridge, and he had significant shame and a history of addiction.
I learned much more about suicide when my brother, John, only 14 months older than I, decided to take his own life. I was devastated at losing John, but not shocked when he finally killed himself. He had discussed suicide as an option end to his pain for months prior.
Suicide is the last escape option for those who commit it. People who suicide believe that they have tried everything to improve their life and there is no other way out. I believe that suicide is more prevalent in middle aged people because they’ve endured the pain for so long and they can’t face going through another half of life with that pain.
The suicides that gain media attention are suicides of very successful people such as Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain. Because the public only sees a storybook portrayal of the lives of these celebrities, the public is stunned when they learn that a celebrity committed suicide. The public sees very little of the real life of a celebrity, especially one that is depressed and who naturally wants to hide it from others.
What I learned from my brother’s suicide is that he had incredible shame that could not be treated with the methods he sought. His methods were to immerse himself in achievements and accolades. He attended the best schools- Wesleyan, Stanford and Dartmouth and worked at McKinsey, the world’s most prestigious consulting firm. No amount of external validation could erase or even minimize, beyond few hours or days, the pain he felt from his shame.
Shame is complex and most often it originates in childhood. The emotion of shame interpreted by the child as signifying that there is something inherently wrong with him. There was tremendous pressure to be successful in our family of origin. Combined with that, John had incredible intelligence and yet his undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, resulted in him frequently messing up. His impulsivity and the acts that followed, contributed to his shame.
As an adult living with shame, John tried to escape his shame by working harder to gain more success. If only he could reach the top, then he'd feel better inside. No amount of success would address his shame and yet he couldn't see this. I told him more times than I can remember that he had to accept himself and that he had to have self-compassion. I told him that he needed balance and to stop focusing on achievements. He tried to learn different ways to live, but he couldn’t. Like the celebrities who fooled the public, my brother fooled those who did not know him well. At his memorial service several of his classmates from Tuck referred to him as their Dali lama because of how often he tried to help others.
John may have been saved if he had been treated earlier and by more skilled therapists. He didn’t enter therapy until he was 30 and he went for big name therapists, and not ones that were particularly skilled.
Of course our family dynamics were a huge risk factor. But there’s also genetics. Scientists have identified a genetic predisposition to suicide. A year after my brother died, my cousin took her own life.
Celebrity suicides provide parents an opportunity to become more aware. Parents need to find ways to correct their children without shaming a child. Shaming a child will not help them to be more successful. Shame in a child will create a poor self-image, self-loathing and dissatisfaction with life.
Parents should make the effort to learn about their own family histories. Mental illness is stigmatized and it was more so in the past. Two or more decades ago, suicides may not have been labeled as such, making it difficult to find the truth about which deaths were accidents and which were by choice.
As much as it’s difficult to accept that someone would choose to die, it’s important not to judge people who suicide. Victims of suicide choose to die to escape self-judgment, we should let them have their peace.
E. Hastings, Mark & Northman, Lisa & Tangney, June & Joiner, Thomas & Rudd, M. (2007). Shame, Guilt, and Suicide. 67-79. 10.1007/0-306-47233-3_6.
Zai CC, de Luca V, Strauss J, et al. Genetic Factors and Suicidal Behavior. In: Dwivedi Y, editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2012. Chapter 11.Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK107191/