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Since the recent deaths of two celebrities — Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — and the concurrent onslaught of media coverage, the subject of suicide has re-emerged as a topic of discussion and interest, just as it did when Robin Williams and L’Wren Scott committed suicide in 2014. It’s a tragic theme and one that baffles the minds of many people. For those who have never contemplated the idea of killing oneself, it must be hard to imagine doing something so drastic and so final.
But as someone who has struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide at various periods of my life, I can attest that it’s a powerful force that is difficult to control and keep in check. In the words of Andrew Solomon, “It’s hard for people who have never been suicidal to understand how seductive it can seem.” I know that for many people who have suicidal thoughts, the thought is not, “If” but “when,” and to me (one who has been there before), that thought pattern is terrifying.
As I was thinking of a way into the theme, my mind went back to a post that I wrote on April 27, 2017 (Death, Social Media, and a Butterfly Named Ray) about a friend who, from outside appearances, seemed to have everything going for him, who, nonetheless, killed himself by jumping out of his apartment window. My angle into that story was, of course, about the sadness and unfathomable tragedy of the act, but I veered in a vastly different direction and wrote about a rather spiritual incident that happened to me a couple of days after he died.
At first, I thought I would re-run the post today. But I opted not to go that route, rather I wanted to find a way into the subject that was focused solely on the topic of suicide and different ways to think about it. As I researched, I came across a piece by Andrew Solomon in the New Yorker. He touched on everything that I wanted to write about in such a thoughtful, informative, and beautiful way that I thought I’d share the article with you.
Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and the Preventable Tragedies of Suicide
By Andrew Solomon
The pattern of highly accomplished and successful people committing suicide is transfixing. It assures the rest of us that a life of accolades is not all that it’s cracked up to be and that achieving more will not make us happier. At the same time, it reveals the fact that no one is safe from suicide, that whatever defenses we think we have are likely to be inadequate. Kate Spade’s handbags were playful and fun. Her quirky look was unmistakable and bespoke exuberance. Anthony Bourdain was almost inconceivably high-functioning and won so many awards that he seemed ready to give an award to his favorite award. High-profile suicides such as these cause copycat suicides; there was a nearly 10% spike in suicides following Robin Williams’s death. There is always an upswing following such high-profile events.
You who are reading this are at statistically increased risk of suicide right now. Who knows if Bourdain had read of Kate Spade’s suicide as he prepared to do the same thing? We are all statistically more likely to kill ourselves than we were 10 years ago. That increased vulnerability is itself depressing, and that depressing information interacts with our own unguarded selves. If life wasn’t worth living for people such as Bourdain and Spade, how can our more ordinary lives hold up? Those of us who have clinical depression can feel the tug toward suicide amped up by this kind of news.
The gap between public triumph and private despair is treacherous, with the outer shell obscuring the real person even to those with whom he or she had professed intimacy.
There has long been an assertion popular in mental-health circles that suicide is a symptom of depression and that, if we would only treat depression adequately, suicide would be a thing largely of the past. We learn of Kate Spade’s possible marital woes as though marital woes rationalized a suicide. It is true that, in someone with a significant tendency to suicide, external factors may trigger the act itself, but difficult circumstances do not usually fully explain someone’s choice to terminate his or her own life. People must have an intrinsic vulnerability; for every person who kills himself when he is left by his wife, there are hundreds who don’t kill themselves under like circumstances.
A new CDC report shows a vast increase in American suicides over the past decade and asserts that 54% of the suicides reviewed didn’t have a previously known mental-health issue. ‘Instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems, and recent crises or things that were coming up in their lives that they were anticipating,’ Deborah Stone, [author of the study] and a behavioral scientist at the CDC told NPR.
But that finding mostly calls into question the definition of mental-health issues. For someone without a mental disorder or illness, would suicide seem like the permanent answer to temporary woes? Suicide is a result of despair, hopelessness, the feeling of being a burden on others. It can be fed by mental illness or by life circumstances but is almost always the result of both. ‘The highest rates are white men in their fifties or sixties,’ Victor Schwartz, the chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation, a suicide-prevention group, told me. ‘Divorce, losing your family, feeling like there isn’t a runway ahead of you. That’s a very desperate place to be. Throw in alcohol and a gun, and it’s lethal.’
Suicide is on the rise nationwide. It claims more American lives each year than do automobile accidents. It has gone up 25% in the past two decades, with increases in almost every state. There were close to 45,000 deaths from suicide in the United States in 2016 alone. It is now one of the top 10 causes of death in the country, one of the top three for adolescents.
Rates of teen depression have risen since 2011, and students are carrying more debt and face more uncertainty about their lives. Despite a growing economy, people who are employed today do not feel confident that they will be employed tomorrow; with automation, many jobs feel terribly precarious. And the social safety net is being reeled in at every opportunity….Schwartz [also] observes that school shootings undermine a sense of safety; young people who are already anxious have their anxiety validated by the news from Parkland or Santa Fe. But those shootings also affect adults; if schools have become unsafe, then what real safety do any of us have?
The proximity of a means to suicide swells suicide numbers; when you reduce access to means of suicide, you reduce suicide. When barriers went up at the Golden Gate Bridge, the suicide rate in San Francisco diminished. Australia has shown a decrease in suicide since the establishment of better gun restrictions there. Fifty percent of American suicides involve a firearm. And gun control would be the quickest path to reducing American suicides. Whereas only about 10% of those who attempt an overdose with pills succeed, according to Schwartz, some 90% of those who attempt with a firearm are successful in ending their own lives. Suicide is often impulsive, and, if the means do not spring to hand, the impulse passes and people [can] go on to good lives.
Modernity is alienating, and it has been alienating for a great while; look at an Edward Hopper painting if you think this post-industrial misery has come about only since the Internet was invented. Isolation is another significant suicide risk. People who believe that no one will miss them have little to stand between them and the final act. As someone who has written and spoken about depression, I receive frequent letters from people grappling with the condition, and what is most striking to me is how alone many of them are. I hear from people who wake up, eat breakfast, go to a job at which they interact with a machine all day, pick up food on the way home, eat in front of a television, and then go to bed. These people are so alone that they are effectively invisible to the rest of us; we don’t get to interact with them enough to see their misery. Many of them describe suicidal feelings.
But it won’t answer the question entirely. In a compelling installment of Head Talk, a series of online mental-health videos, titled 'When Not Killing Yourself Becomes the Goal,' the psychotherapist Maggie Robbins, who herself has bipolar disorder, says, ‘There was a point where I realized that, if I died of old age, I would win, because so many people with bipolar disorder kill themselves that simply not to kill myself would be a big goal. And I thought, that’s really a low bar. And then I said, No, it’s not a low bar, because it can be that hard.’ It’s hard for people who have never been suicidal to understand how seductive it can seem. Though their acts may have been impulsive, the likelihood is that both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had struggled with demons for many years.
There is another factor that should not be underestimated. On a national stage, we’ve seen an embrace of prejudice and intolerance, and that affects the mood of all citizens. My psychoanalyst said that he had never before had every one of his patients discuss national politics repeatedly, in session after session. Now there is a continuous strain of anxiety and fear from one side and brutality from the other. Hatred is depressing — it is, of course, depressing to be hated, but it is also depressing to hate. The erosion of the social safety net means that more and more people are at a sudden breaking point, and there are few messages of authentic comfort to offer them in these pitiless times. One is done in by disease, by isolation and despair, and by life crisis.
At the moment, many people’s vulnerability is exacerbated by the unkindness manifest in each day’s headlines. We feel both our own anguish and the world’s. There is a dearth of empathy, even of kindness, in the national conversation, and those deficits turn ordinary neurosis into actionable despair.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
**The original piece is over 2,000 words and so for succinctness sake, I’ve edited the article down a great deal. If you are interested in reading the entire piece, which includes other options that Solomon believes would curb suicide, you can find the link here.
Cooking for Joan
When I was looking through Cooking for Joan and the vast list of recipes that I’ve offered up over the past 62 weeks, I wanted to find something easy and slightly unusual. For the past few years, I’ve been making my own salad dressings, one of which I’ve highlighted already: the best Caesar Dressing ever! Since I have a number of them in my repertoire, I thought this would be a perfect time to highlight another — French dressing. Now, when most people think of French dressing, I’m sure images of 70s and 80s salad bars come to mind.
French dressing never really stayed in fashion but honestly, I’ve always been a fan. So when I was creating my dressing repertoire, I decided to look for an updated recipe, and voilà, I found one. This dressing has a wonderful smooth texture with the right amount of tanginess from the vinegar, acidity from the ketchup and lemon, and bite from the onion and garlic. If you’re looking to make it smooth and creamy, just add a touch of mayonnaise. Give it a try!
French Salad Dressing
Prep Time: 5 min | Cook Time: 5 min | Makes: 6 (Scaled) | Difficulty: Easy
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1/4- 3/8 cup sugar (start with 1/2 cup)
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
- 1/6 cup minced yellow onion
- 1 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon garlic salt (or to taste or use 1-2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic and 1/2 teaspoon white salt)
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper (optional or to taste)
In a large food processor blend all ingredients together until smooth (starting with 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt and 1/2 cup sugar and add in more to taste after mixing.
Do not attempt to make this in a small 4-cup blender or you will have the dressing all over your counter!
Mix in the mayonnaise (if using) for a creamy-style French dressing.
Place in the fridge for a couple of hours before serving.
**image courtesy of Oliver Pavic