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