Friday morning, friends found Anthony Bourdain dead in his upscale hotel room. He had committed suicide. Like Kate Spade, who ended her life mere days before, he hanged himself.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that Kate Spade’s suicide and the ensuing coverage helped Bourdain firm up a plan, that her death smoothed his path. That’s because suicide is a contagion and must be treated as such.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes:
One risk factor that has emerged from this research is suicide “contagion,” a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide. Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas. In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides. The effect of contagion appears to be strongest among adolescents, and several well-publicized “clusters” among young persons have occurred.
Let’s be clear. Every suicide makes the next one more possible.
The higher the profile of the suicide, the more broadly it is covered, the more pronounced the effect.
According to USA Today, after Robin Williams’ suicide and the ensuing coverage, suicides rose 10 percent and suicides using his preferred method, strangulation, spiked 32 percent. Ultimately, high-profile suicides—as with everything celebrities do—inspire copycats. This should be noted every time one of these suicides happens. It’s abhorrent that the coverage of a high-profile suicide is more often presented as a romanticized struggle between the perpetrator’s better nature and his or her demons at the cost of an examination of the fallout.
The rate of suicide in the United States has increased 25 percent in the past 20 years. According to the CDC, the rate of adolescent suicide has skyrocketed in the last 50 years (it is now one of the top causes of teen death). Further, adolescent suicide is less the result of clinical depression and mental illness than it is of other situational depression or inspiration. In other words, it is a thing that will pass in time for the adolescent, assuming he lives through it in order to have the time. As such, the high-profile overly glamorized coverage of celebrity suicide helps create the cultural stew that makes such nihilistic action increasingly acceptable, even seductive.
When Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain killed themselves, many of us felt sadness and empathy. Others, however, simultaneously felt anger and rage when they focused on the families and children. In what seems increasingly to resemble paint by numbers coverage, most media centered on the former to the exclusion of the latter—helping the contagion of suicide spread. As the CDC report points out:
News coverage is less likely to contribute to suicide contagion when reports of community expressions of grief . . . are minimized. Such actions may contribute to suicide contagion by suggesting to susceptible persons that society is honoring the suicidal behavior of the deceased person, rather than mourning the person’s death.
Whether we realize it or not, we are erring on the side of empathy and grief for the suicide to a point that comes dangerously close to glamorizing it. Instead of focusing on the destruction, we go out of our way to glorify their lives and ennoble their struggles. We forget that someone who commits a horrendous act that destroys lives doesn’t suddenly become absolved of guilt because they despaired over it. We talk from one side of our collective mouths about suicide not being a solution or a way out, while simultaneously wrapping its perpetrators’ motivations in a shroud of passion.
Article after article highlights the demons that people who commit suicide endured, but we do little to bring to light the circle of abject destruction, pain and misery that they leave in their wake when they kill someone’s father, brother, mother, mentor, child, and friend. In the wake of any high profile suicide, our media focuses acutely on the means of death, but rarely comes back to report on families a year or two later—to highlight the pain, resentment, and hopelessness that remain for generations after the suicide (children who lose a parent to suicide are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves and are twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression).
Annihilation of Art
We mythologize the suicides of artists to the point of making self-murder seem like the natural denouement of a life creative—propelling their status in the collective imagination from mere artists to legend and exquisitely tortured souls.
Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Rothko, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Cobain—we rarely view their self-destruction as the negation of the beauty they created. Instead, we are taught to blame the world around them for not being able to handle their genius or give it its due. Don McLean expressed this cultural ethos in “Starry Starry Night,” when he proclaimed of Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide: “You took your life as lovers often do, But I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you . . . ”
Already, Forbes is comparing Bourdain to Hemingway—whose death, incidentally, I was incorrectly taught in middle school, was that of an artistic martyr—taking his life because he no longer felt that he could make great art. Even Cobain’s death is wrapped up in the ragged thrift-store blanket of idealized suffering and portrayed as the apotheosis of his music’s message of alienation—we live in a culture that has painted suicide as the forbidden fruit of artistic and existential crisis—one that leads to death, but also one that has the potential to propel those who eat it into myth.
We’re All “High Profile” to the People Closest to Us
As we look to these high-profile celebrity suicides and are bombarded by stories of their failed struggles with depression, those of us who soldier one with our daily struggle with the black dog might think “If someone so successful can’t find something to live for, what hope have I?”
But the truth is, most of us are “high profile” to those in our immediate circles. We’re all examples to someone—whether it be our kids, our extended family, those we work with, or our friends. The thing we can strive to have, that those who gave up their struggle seem to have forgotten about, is a respect for those who love us and look up to us and value us. Whether or not we believe in our ability to add value to the world, we’re in no position to make that observation with objectivity. Thus we don’t get to make that call. And honestly, everybody, no matter their station in life, who lives with their depression and manages it realizes that the most important step anyone can take is the next one. Those people are stronger and more to be admired than those who take their own lives—and this distinction cannot be overstated.
Most of us have come into contact with depression and suicide in one form or another. Some of us suffer depression ourselves or love someone who does while others have thought about and even attempted suicide or know and love those who have. I don’t fault people for their fascination with the struggle with pain. But we ought to be careful not to repress and sublimate our justifiable rage and anger at those who take their own lives to the point where we become after-the-fact apologists and, in turn, before-the-fact enablers.
Suicide is Not OK
This is not an either/or. Of course, we should feel empathy for those who struggle with depression and lose the fight. But we shouldn’t have to repress and lie about the justifiable rage we feel when someone destroys not only their own life but also the lives of those around them—for generations. We should not excuse the fact that these people have also knowingly acted in ways that will inspire others to do the same.
Sympathy and empathy are imperative in treating depression. Love, understanding, and medication really can heal. But a healthy dose of social pressure, judgment, and yes, honest vocal expressions of genuine moral disgust and anger at those who actually commit suicide, is also necessary. Without it, we send a clear signal, no matter how well meant: “It’s OK. In the end, we’ll understand. Maybe we will even think you were more complex than the rest of us.”
Ultimately, high-profile suicides romanticize and raise the volume of the siren’s song—emboldening those with more prosaic lives to the cliffs. Sympathize, empathize, grieve and understand if you must. I certainly do. But also never forget nor forgive, the culpability of those who would, by their uplifted station, serve as willing participants in the spread of this horrible contagion to those who look up to them. Depression is real. But it doesn’t absolve those who give into it from either the pain they cause or the example they set.
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