Last week Lisa Barry, host of “All Things Considered” at WEMU, contacted me to discuss suicide in the context of the suicides of Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain.
Lisa: Sadly, people end their own lives everyday. In fact, the US suicide rate increased more than 20% since 1999 according to the centers for disease control and prevention. Thie tragedy of taking one’s own life is on many people’s minds, especially this week as two prominent personalities, fashion designer, Kate Spade and celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, committed suicide. That prompted me to reach out to Ann Arbor Psychologist, Dr. Robert Pasick who also is a lecturer at the University of Michigan, to see if he could provide some insight and possibly support for those of us shocked and saddened by what happened. So, hello Dr. Pasick and thank you for joining us.
Rob: Hi, Lisa.
As a Harvard educated Psychologist, can you help us process what’s happening?
Rob: I think first of all it is important to recognize that, what makes people happy, and what makes people sad, and what makes people suicidal are three different things. People who are suicidal are often are suffering from some form of anxiety and/or depression, even though it may not be diagnosed. Their pursuit of happiness in the external world, for Anthony and for Kate Spade, is their way cope, but it doesn’t solve the problem of anxiety and depression.
I think a lot of us in society don’t recognize that even achieving wealth and fame and fortune isn’t going necessarily impact that suicidal tendencies. So we’re always shocked by these things happening. I read about Kate Spade and it sounds like she was treated and was medicated, but sometimes severe depression is very difficult to stop. Once one get suicide in one’s mind it is very hard to shake. It becomes like a freight train that just won’t stop. That’s a big factor.
(I forgot to mention this on the radio, but my own grandfather, with whom I grew up, committed suicide when he was 78. Growing up with someone who suffered from bipolar disorder was a major factor in my decision to become a Psychologist.)
Lisa: I haven’t met Kate Spade (I certainly was a fan of her products) or Anthony Bourdain, but you feel like you know them, because they are out there in the public. How do we process the grief that we’re probably feeling as well, even though we didn’t know them personally?
Rob: I think that we are sad because we identify with these people. I was a big Anthony Bourdain fan, he’s kind of a hero for me. It’s a great shock to read this. Although in reading his books, he described himself as a person who was going to flame out. He said he’s surprised now that he had lived past 30. So, I knew that about him and he probably suffered from what we used to call manic-depressive illness but what we now call Bipolar Disorder. He lived life fast and almost manically. Then he also probably lived life in segments of depression and severe drug abuse. So the way to process this is just like any other loss. It’s very sad for us. The difference is we can’t do much about it. We can’t reach out to them and say “sorry about this” much like when a public figure dies in an accident. We have so many people who are killed and we can’t do anything about it. Like Princess Diana years ago, a great outpouring of sadness publicly, but what do we do about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain? There’s not much we can do, except maybe post on Facebook, and say we’re sad.
It’s a reminder to reach out to people that we know, in our own lives that may be suffering from some of these disorders. Often these disorders are masked by drug addiction or alcoholism. We blame people because they’re taking illicit drugs, but in fact they may be trying to cover for their deep depression, using things that are available, not prescription drugs which are very expensive. A lot of people can’t afford the hundreds of dollars a month fior some of the SSRIs that are there to treat depression. They will then go to something like opioids (I read today that 1.5% of our deaths in the country are opioid deaths, and a high percentage of those are probably suicide, trying to cope with the addiction.)
Lisa: Has the stigma of mental health problems changed much in recent years? Is it more acceptable to share that maybe you’re not feeling so great?
Rob: It is changing with people like Dr Phil and Oprah bringing it to light and also people being open about how depression affects everybody. It’s not something to be ashamed of but something to admit and to recognize. As a matter of fact, it is an act of bravery to come out say “I’m dealing with this and not afraid to talk about it.” However, it was once so stigmatic, particularly for men, that it still remains very difficult for men. Men don’t want to admit vulnerability or weakness. They see signs of any kind of illness as a sign of weakness. So, men don’t like going to the doctor. But, particularly mental illness is viewed as a real failure and sign of weakness. Men are ashamed to admit they have the problem, and if you don’t admit it, you can’t talk to people about it. Even if you are secretly getting treatment, you can’t get your social network support that you need to cope with this.
Lisa: What about treatment? Is it easy to get? Is it out there? Is the help and support we need readily available?
Rob: Unfortunately, not. It’s very difficult to get into the system and to get the needs met. Washtenaw County is a little bit better than the rest of the country because we do have a good county mental health system and we have a lot of free clinics, like Hope clinic in Ypsilanti and others like it that do provide treatment. Nationwide, the statistics are terrible. Rather than more money going into mental health treatment, less is going in. When I started out in this field in 1970s, a lot of people were being brought out of the institutions where they had been kept for years with mental illness. The money to keep them in institutions was supposed to follow them to treatment in community clinics. That money never followed. So a lot of the people we see on the street are people who are suffering from anxiety and depression (also of those people who are in prisons). We are way behind on this and we are due for a reckoning.
Some of these celebrities’ losses may turn into recognizing that everybody, in all walks of life are susceptible and that mental health disorders can be deadly diseases. It is not something to be taken lightly at all.
Lisa: That was an eye opener for me, talking to Washtenaw County Sheriff, Jerry Clayton. He told me about 50% of the people in the county jail are suffering from mental illness issues. I know you teach a class about Self Awareness, you have a book, Self-Aware, A Guide for Success in Work and Life. Can that help us in situations like this?
Rob: My book does have a chapter about mental health. I was surprised at how many of my students, the top students at the University of Michigan in the Business School, a fair number of them, report suffering from anxiety and depression. They are under so much pressure to do well, to get high grades, and get good job placements. They are driven kids to begin with. So, what we see from this, is (depression and anxiety) it’s everywhere.
I also want to mention the copy cat affect. We see epidemics where one person does this and it awakens the other person’s potential. We see this with the school shootings. Why are there so many? It’s not just that there are more guns out there, although that’s a big part of it. Some of the school shooters report studying the Columbine killers, and make these kids their heroes who they want to emulate. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we see more of these suicides among famous people. They realize it’s a way out, thinking “if my hero Anthony Bourdain could do something like that, I guess I could do it too”. We are at a risky time right now.
Lisa: As human beings, what can we do stop that and help each other?
Rob: First thing, is try to raise kids well. Many people who are depressed or abusing drugs are suffering from PTSD because they have suffered abuse as children. By abuse, I don’t just mean that they’ve been burned or things like that but also treated very harshly and punished in a very negative or unpredictable environment. We can try to do better on raising our kids and treating parenting as an important skill to learn.
Secondly, I think we can recognize in ourselves that if we are having these problems that we should seek medical attention and talk to our doctors without being afraid of medication. We should more afraid of suicide than medication. We do have ways to treat this which is very different from our past generations and we should take advantage of that. Sure, there are some side-affects, but the fact of the matter is they do help quite a bit.
What to do if you know someone who is suicidal:
- Don’t be afraid to talk with them about it
- Despite common misconception, talking about it will not make people commit suicide
- Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t offer the person suggestions as to why they shouldn’t be depressed because of all the good things in their life. Good things are not an assurance against suicide
- It is okay to ask people if they are having suicidal thoughts. If they say yes, take it seriously. Offer to get them some help. Non-professionals are not qualified to deal with the complexity of suicide.
- If you know people who are dealing with a mental illness, try not avoid them even though they seem to prefer to be alone or even be hostile toward the people who care about them. This is one of life’s most complex dilemmas. Showing up for them may be beneficial in the long run, even though it may be painful for us to do.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255