Every time I read yet another article about the suicides of Anthony Bourdain, or Kate Spade — or anyone else who tragically took their life — it stings.
It’s like adding further pressure to a recent wound; the skin is too fragile, too taut to withhold further trauma without breaking again. I also feel a sense of despair and futility when I see people sharing suicide hotline numbers when a celebrity kills themselves — like that is going to achieve anything!
My brother killed himself 21 months ago. There was no note. No indication that he was depressed, or that he suffered with any substance use disorders. Nothing. The way he did it left no doubt that it was his intention to leave this world. To end whatever pain he was in — pain that we, as his family, knew nothing of. He was a doctor, he knew there was help available, he also knew how to effectively end a life. He had made his decision and that was that.
Al was not the poster guy for suicide. To the outside world, Al was the intelligent, witty guy. He was the person everyone wanted to hang out with, the guy who women wanted to date, and the fellow doctor that his peers admired and sought counsel with. This wasn’t a perfect storm for suicide; this was an act that appeared to be completely out of the blue.
And it’s not so uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than 54 percent of those who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition — the majority of these people are men (84 percent). The reality is that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in America. Nearly 45,000 people killed themselves in 2016 (a figure said to be grossly underestimated), and that figure is only increasing — by more than 30 percent in half of states since 1999. But why is it that we only speak about it when a celebrity kills themselves?
And when we do speak about suicide, why don’t we facilitate a helpful discussion aimed at remedying the causes of suicide?
What bothers me the most is that when people read this tragic news and see it as an invitation to speculate on their cause of death. I’ve read abhorrent articles and subsequent comments that Anthony Bourdain died due to “untreated alcoholism.” How helpful is that kind of discussion? It isn’t. It points the finger, it speculates, it perpetuates a fear that people in recovery will always have a demon living within them ready to take their life if they don’t continually “work a program.” It is unsympathetic, inconsiderate, and unhelpful. Yes, we need to talk about why people die, but speculation, without meaningful action, is futile.
Instead, a much more helpful discussion might be centered around what is causing so many deaths. Could we consider, instead of focusing on the problem, looking at the significance of unresolved trauma and repressed emotions — a major cause of many chronic conditions that people struggle to live with.
It would be more beneficial to focus on the provision of healthcare for all and resources that help people deal with life’s major stressors: relationships, substance use disorder, physical and mental health, their job pressures, money, legal or housing stressors.
We can work together as employers, loved ones, friends and relatives, doctors, peers in recovery, and support services to teach people coping skills to manage their challenges and better support people at risk. We can stop bickering and being divisive and instead create a supportive and welcoming community to help one another through their loneliness and disconnection in times of stress.
Together we need to advocate for these resources, rather than seeing these tragedies as an opportunity to underline fear-based philosophies about substance use disorder, or even to promote our modality of recovery. Someone may still be actively participating in their recovery and still kill themselves.
Suicide isn’t an opportunity for grandstanding. Get off your soap box, stop speculating, and start increasing access to resources. Volunteer, donate to mental illness organizations and recovery communities. But please, please, don’t use someone’s tragedy as a means of opining what was wrong with them. That doesn’t help anyone. Least of all it doesn’t help families grieve and heal their wounds.
“Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans – and it’s a tragedy for families and communities across the country. From individuals and communities to employers and healthcare professionals, everyone can play a role in efforts to help save lives and reverse this troubling rise in suicide.”
— CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D.
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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.