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Jonathan Foiles LCSW

Ending the Stigma Surrounding Suicide

How we talk about suicide often perpetuates stigma rather than reduces it.

Ryan McGuire/Pixabay
Source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay

Iconic fashion designer Kate Spade died by suicide on Tuesday, and almost immediately the media began speculating about her motives. TMZ and other gossip sites discussed the method she used and the contents of her suicide note. Her estranged sister gave an interview in which she claimed that her sister had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In response to the sister’s disclosure, Spade’s husband released a statement noting that she had been in treatment for anxiety and depression.

In the wake of tragedy, it’s normal to look for answers. Anthony Bourdain died of suicide this morning, and I’m sure the speculation over his motives will start soon (if it hasn’t already). Our search for answers to the question of why, however well-intentioned, often does far more to perpetuate stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness than it does to reduce it.

When news leaked of Kate Spade’s possible diagnoses, many assumed that this provided an ample explanation for her death and a thousand thinkpieces on the way that depression can strike even the seemingly well-off were written. To state the obvious, millions of people have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or depression and are still alive. Of course these are contributing factors to a person’s decision to end their life, but they are never the only reason. There were assuredly other facets of Kate Spade’s life that caused her pain, and these belong only to her family and her memory.

Beyond not respecting the privacy of the deceased, treating a mental health diagnosis as the sole explanation for why someone chose to die by suicide sends a message to other people that may be struggling that if they come out to their friends or family they may be treated as a suicide in waiting. Mental illness is not some dark current ceaselessly flowing towards death. The equation depression=death by suicide is deeply wrongheaded and discourages those who are suffering but may think their condition isn’t that dire from seeking help.

We now live in a cultural moment in which it seems safe for celebrities of all sorts to be upfront about their mental health diagnoses. This is unquestionably a good thing, but the flip side of reducing stigma by going public with one’s struggles is respecting others who choose not to do so. Kate Spade (and presumably Anthony Bourdain) chose not to share their mental health struggles, and that is their choice and their right. It used to be common practice for gossip magazines to try to ‘out’ celebrities as LGBT, usually against their wishes. We’ve come to see that as a violence and a violating act, and we need to take the same stance towards outing someone with a mental illness.

The best way to be an ally to those dealing with mental illness begins with the way you talk about recent celebrity suicides. Do not read or share articles that violate the privacy of the deceased and their family members. People “commit” rapes and murders, not suicide. The phrase “committed suicide” stems from an era when suicide was seen as a moral affront. Use instead “died by suicide” or “completed suicide.” Also, it’s okay to be sad. Our ceaseless search for answers, whether in the wake of a suicide or a national tragedy, often obscures the real work of mourning.

If you yourself are thinking about suicide, get help. Part of depression is feeling as if there is no hope, so even if it feels as if the future is bleak it does not mean that it is so. Depression warps our sense of self and ability to see the future. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. If you’re not actively suicidal but need someone to talk to, look for a therapist in your area. Even if you think you can’t afford one, many therapists see patients on a sliding scale.

We will never know what causes anyone, celebrity or no, to decide that life was no longer worth living. We can, however, work to do better by others in the ways we talk about mental illness and suicide and do better by ourselves by seeking help when we need it.

About the Author

Jonathan Foiles, LCSW, is a therapist who works at a community mental health clinic in Chicago.