Commentary: First Kate Spade, Now Anthony Bourdain? Suicide, And The Mental Health Epidemic In America (Updated)

Last year, I was writing full time for a website from my home office in Troy, churning out breaking news and full-length features at a tremendous clip. It was a busy time, and one that weighed heavily on my mind. (I had recently moved from New York City back home to Upstate New York, was in a new house, and was all alone, writing day in and day out.) I sought solace in the weekly Skype sessions I had with my psychologist in Oakland, California—I started visiting him weekly while on a five-month-long, work-life trip in 2015 with my wife—and I was desperate to keep my anxiety and feelings of general blueness at bay; this was supposed to be my dream job, and I didn’t want my mental health to spoil it.

One of my morning tasks for the website was trawling social media and the Internet for the latest trending stories and reporting them in real time. I remember my heart sinking on May 18, 2017, reading about the suicide of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in shocked silence, and then methodically typing out this obituary, in which I included my five favorite songs of his. Almost to the day, two months later, I found myself writing a second obit, this time for rocker Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. And then in August, penning a first-person appeal to Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, who had posted a frightening, suicidal plea on her Facebook page to anyone who’d listen. I remember talking at length about these people with my psychologist, and feeling like something truly sinister was happening in America. If people of such great fortune and fame—the people we (you and me) look up to—were choosing self-inflicted death over life, that we, as a society, were getting something terribly wrong. What really weighed on me: For every one of those high profile suicides that occurred—123 people commit suicide in America daily, by the way—there were countless others that didn’t get the press or the tributes, and behind them, there were people who were suffering in silence, dying alone and in pain. Those were some difficult months to wrap my head around.

So on Tuesday, when I read about the death of Kate Spade—the talented fashion designer behind the popular handbag line (one that I’d definitely seen in my wife’s closet)—and now just today, Anthony Bourdain, the TV personality, food author and all-around raconteur (I was a big fan of his work), I’m once again grasping for straws, wondering why and how this could’ve happened. Short of re-reporting the news that every Saratogian will read over the next few days, I’m left wondering out loud what we as a community can do to make sure a tragedy like the ones I’ve described above don’t turn our lives upside down. Just last May, it was reported that Saratoga County had a frighteningly high suicide rate—with the majority of suicides occurring in places like nearby Clifton Park and Saratoga Springs. There are a number of local places that people can go to receive treatment or at the very least, talk to someone and get whatever is hurting them off their mind. Some of these places include: The Saratoga County Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which is located on South Broadway in Saratoga (518.584.9030), as well as Four Winds Hospital (518.584.3600) and the Saratoga Center for the Family (518.587.8008). Of course, there’s also the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, where there’s always someone to take your call: 1.800.273.8255. (There are many, many more resources on the community and national levels.)

But short of dropping statistics and giving out numbers, to affect real change, it requires us to sit down and have tough conversations with our family and friends, be open about our feelings with ourselves and others and try not to be too judgmental of one another. We need to continue writing about America’s mental health epidemic and our personal struggles (as I’ve done in the past), exploring holistic solutions such as meditation (I’ve been meditating daily since my trip to the West Coast) and learning what we can about our complex minds and how they react to pain.

On June 11, I received an email, which included an open letter written by #MeToo Movement activist and actress Rose McGowan about her friend, actress Asia Argento, who was dating Bourdain at the time of his suicide. It’s worth reading for some perspective on how suicide affects us all—and what might be done to prevent it. Below, I’ve reprinted the letter in its entirety:

Dear Fellow Humans,

Sitting across from me is the remarkable human and brave survivor, Asia Argento, who has been through more than most could stand, and yet stand she does. She stood up to her monster rapist and now she has to stand up to yet another monster, suicide. The suicide of her beloved lover and ally, Anthony Bourdain. I write these truths because I have been asked to. I know so many around the world thought of Anthony Bourdain as a friend and when a friend dies, it hurts. Many of these people who lost their “friend” are wanting to lash out and blame. You must not sink to that level. Suicide is a horrible choice, but it is that person’s choice.

When Anthony met Asia, it was instant chemistry. They laughed, they loved and he was her rock during the hardships of this last year. Anthony was open with his demons, he even wrote a book about them. In the beginning of their relationship, Anthony told a mutual friend, “He’s never met anyone who wanted to die more than him.” And through a lot of this last year, Asia did want the pain to stop. But here’s the thing: Over their time together, thankfully, she did the work to get help, so she could stay alive and live another day for her and her children. Anthony’s depression didn’t let him, he put down his armor, and that was very much his choice. His decision, not hers. His depression won. Anthony and Asia had a free relationship, they loved without borders of traditional relationships, and they established the parameters of their relationship early on. Asia is a free bird, and so was Anthony. Was. Such a terrible word to write. I’ve heard from many that the past two years they were together were some of his happiest and that should give us all solace.

Anthony was 61, the same age my father was when he died. My father also suffered from intermittent deep depression, and like Anthony, was part of a “pull up your bootstraps and march on” generation. The a “strong man doesn’t ask for help” generation. I know before Anthony died he reached out for help, and yet he did not take the doctor’s advice. And that has led us here, to this tragedy, to this loss, to this world of hurt. Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony’s internal war was his war, but now she’s been left on the battlefield to take the bullets. It is in no way fair or acceptable to blame her or anyone else, not even Anthony. We are asking you to be better, to look deeper, to read and learn about mental illness, suicide and depression before you make it worse for survivors by judging that which we do not understand, that which can never fully be understood. Sometimes we are stuck in the unknowable, and that is where we are now, a massive wave of darkness that threatens to swallow everyone in its wake.

As I watch Asia do her job on set today, I see a pillar of strength who continues to work to put food on her children’s table. I see Elizabeth Taylor carrying on filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof despite her love, her husband, dying in a plane crash. I see all of us who have carried on. Please join me in sending healing energy to Anthony on his journey, and to all who’ve been left behind to journey on without him. There is no one to blame but the stigma of loneliness, the stigma of asking for help, the stigma of mental illness, the stigma of being famous and hurting.

We must do more and be better. Anthony, our friend, would want it that way.

To the media and to the random commenter, Anthony would never have wanted Asia to be hurt, I’d like to think he would want us to have the collective conversation that needs to be had about depression. Blame is NOT a conversation, it is the shutting down of our collective growth. Which is where we are now. We have a choice as humans, shrink to our smaller, uglier selves, or be better and grow as only true Phoenixes can. I urge you to be that Phoenix.

With great sadness and even greater hope, I remain,

Rose McGowan

cc: Asia Argento

If you are considering suicide, reach out. We need you here. You matter. You exist. You count. There is help a phone call away, reach out.

I’m really not looking forward to writing this piece again—but something tells me, I’ll be doing it again soon enough.

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