PORT ORCHARD — The recent deaths of renowned chef and television storyteller Anthony Bourdain and women’s fashion accessories designer and businesswoman Kate Spade have given rise once again in American culture to the specter of suicide.
The overriding question remains: what caused these celebrities, people admired for their talents, fame and fortune, to take their own lives?
It’s complicated. But as mental-health specialists assert from their studies of suicide and of those who ended their lives, outward trappings of a successful life often mean little to those in emotional turmoil.
In fact, some point to signs indicating that individuals considered to be successful in life are as susceptible to psychological factors — depression, feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness — as are others who better fit the stereotypical profile of a suicide victim.
Dr. Prakash Masand, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence, said the signs of declining mental health — feelings of hopelessness and having no purpose in life, or a lack of motivation — can take root in anyone, regardless of social class, economic achievement or intelligence.
In an article published in The Seattle Times, Masand said that, “We need to continue to push the fact that the brain is like any other organ in the body.
“Just as your heart or kidneys may have certain issues, so, too, can your brain. If the stigma [of mental illness] is broken, fewer people have to suffer in silence.”
Masand and other professionals say friends and family members of those considering suicide can play an important part in intervening before it’s too late.
People shouldn’t discount abnormal behaviors they observe in their troubled friend. Masand said those behaviors are red flags that should be taken seriously.
Indicators include substance abuse and depression, which are manifestations of a troubled person’s complex inner feelings.
“This is an indication [the subject is] trying to seek an escape from feelings or a situation with which they are unhappy,” the psychiatrist said.
“The depressed individual may go as far as to say goodbye to specific people. Regardless if a loved one seems to be suffering a great deal or just ever so slightly, it should always be taken seriously and referred to a mental health professional.”
Kelly Schwab, program manager for the Crisis Clinic of the Peninsulas in Bremerton, said the people contemplating suicide are primarily motivated to act by the visceral pain they are feeling as a result of their mental health condition, and not necessarily because of their overall life situation.
“A person’s logic becomes clouded,” Schwab said. “People [considering suicide] have a very different view of it than what it actually is. They just want the pain to end.”
The need to come to a psychic closure from their pain and suffering is a powerful component in the drive to commit suicide. He said they often justify the act at the expense of those who love the victim — family and friends.
Schwab said a part of the brain has such an intense desire to flee pain and stress that, in extreme cases such as suicide, it engages in trickery to lead a person into the belief that ending their life is the only way out.
“It convinces us that we are a burden on the people we care about and that our death will actually be a relief to them.”
Paying attention to troubling signs:
What are some of the signs that can be observed of a person considering taking their life?
— A change in sleeping habits, such as not being able to sleep, or sleeping too much.
— Increased drinking or drug use.
— Discussing feeling trapped in their life with no options to change it.
— Talk about being a burden to others. “We like to say suicide is selfish,” Schwab said, “but the reality is, they think suicide is the best thing they can do for the ones they love.”
— Buying a firearm or talking about getting access to one.
— Their mood darkens or changes significantly, or they withdraw even from their closest friends or family members.
— Talk about wanting to die or finding a way to end their pain.
— Little or no reaction to positive or negative events that occur in their lives.
Teenagers, Schwab said, are particularly vulnerable to increased feelings of loneliness and social withdrawal brought on by depression.
“They are more susceptible to what’s called a “suicide contagion,” when one of their fellow students at school dies from suicide and that person’s death is glamorized, which sometimes can lead to others contemplating taking their own lives.
Teenage brains are still developing their executive function capabilities even as they enter the “firehose” learning period of their lives, in which they are confronted by a litany of social ups and downs, rejections and triumphs. Sadly, some find their only mechanism to deal with tough times is through the final act of suicide. A few weeks ago, a South Kitsap 16-year-old girl killed herself by crashing her truck at high speed against a concrete wall.
“One of the things we don’t teach as well as we used to is resiliency,” he added.
“Many don’t believe they can rebound — or recover emotionally — from a negative event.”
One traumatic behavior includes bullying, either overtly or through subtle ways, face-to-face or through social media.
“We know there’s bullying in schools, but there’s always been bullying,” Schwab said. “It’s human nature.”
He said that building resiliency skills helps teens overcome many teenage social dilemmas.
Schwab said resiliency, like coping skills, is mostly learned by children as they grow and experience life. Its basic tenant is that “they are made of strong stuff” and will overcome setbacks that are transitory in nature.
The Crisis Clinic expert said he believes so-called “helicopter parents” of millennium-age children aren’t helping them maneuver their way through complex social situations by constantly bailing them out of difficulty.
“By protecting our children from the consequences of life, we don’t teach them that they can survive what they think of as the worst possible outcome.
“We don’t reinforce the notion that resiliency will help them overcome difficulties, including mental illness or any physical illness.”
The Tragedy of Suicide: Part 3: A means to an end for people in physical pain.