Fashion designer Kate Spade hanged herself in her New York City apartment on Tuesday. When a story like this breaks, many immediately ask, “Why?”
She seemed to be the model of success. She built a fashion empire from the ground up, she was wealthy, famous, and had a loving husband and daughter. Why would someone living the ideal life, choose to end it? The truth is we will never know. Only Kate Spade knew the trauma and despair inside her own mind when she made the choice to hang herself. There is however, the possibility of a crisis in the wake of her death that we need to prevent — the possibility of significantly more tragedy.
The suicide of a celebrity has a history of inspiring copycats. One study found suicide rates increased by 12 percent in the months following the death of Marilyn Monroe, and another study found an 9.85 percent increase after the death of Robin Williams.
According to the studies, the death of a celebrity can cause a suicidal person to become despondent about their own situation, seeing that someone they thought to “have it all” is unable to cope. It also increases the viability of suicide as an option. The World Health Organization has guidelines for the media on how they should depict suicides to the public, hoping to limit the amount of harm a news broadcast can do, but in the age of social media and news on demand, a suicidal person could easily be effected by such a story.
Celebrity suicides have a uniquely potent effect, but fictional suicides depicted in books, movies, and shows have also shown to increase suicide rates. This is commonly known as the “Werther Effect,” named for Goethe’s 1774 “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” in which the protagonist kills himself over his inability to be with the woman he loves. It is commonly thought that the book led to the suicide of many young men, who often dressed as the character and were found with copies of the book with them after they died.
Netflix’s suicide exploitation drama, “13 Reasons Why” has been blamed for several teen suicides, including two 15 year-old girls in California last summer. A study of the effect of “13 Reasons” showed a dramatic increase in Google searches for methods to commit suicide. The show has been widely criticized for its glamorous portrayal of life after death for Hannah Parker, and for its graphic and potentially triggering scene depicting her suicide.
Teen suicide rates have ballooned in recent years, with rates for teenage girls at their highest in four decades, according to a recent report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also reported that 17 percent of children in high school have seriously considered suicide, and that suicides of white girls aged 10-14 have tripled in recent years.
For a person, especially a child, to find themselves at a point in their life that they are so isolated and devoid of hope that they feel the only option is to die is truly horrible. A portrayal of suicide as glamorous is absolutely false. There is no chance to haunt your bullies, it will not feel like a deep sleep without anxiety. It is death, and it is forever.
A person who has killed themselves will likely be found by someone who loved them, who will be shocked and desperately sad. Friends and family are left behind to grieve in the most horrible way — wondering what they could have done to help and why they didn’t see the signs.
Isolation and despair for teenagers is an epidemic. It is too easy for teenagers today to be able to connect with a tragic figure in the news. The news is everywhere for them, as it is for us, but they might not know how to separate reality from perception. A teen contemplating suicide is more likely today to hide online and not connect with friends and family in times of crisis.
It is vitally important that warning signs are heeded. It is important that deaths like that of Spade are not held on a pedestal for despondent teens, but that they are discussed as serious tragedy. Suicide cannot be normalized, it must be constantly reinforced as the most devastating choice that a human can make.
It is important to remind our children of the value of life, of how much God loves them, and how much they add to our own lives. They must know, from us, that life will be hard at times, impossible at others, but that there is always a way to go on.
Mental illness is a dark mistress that can take many forms. People sometimes end their lives because they are ill — their brain has told them that they can’t fix their problems, and they must die. Thoughts of harming oneself are an unfortunate side effect of many forms of mental illness.
Asking for help with depression, especially for children and teens, can seem a more daunting and impossible act than actually committing suicide. The stigma of asking for help in times of crisis must be eradicated. For people that are thinking of ending their own life, they must know: there is always an alternative. There is always a reason to have a tomorrow. It is important for us to see the death of Spade as a reason to talk to people around us, especially children, who may be feeling isolated or hopeless.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).