Kate Spade Would Be Alive if We Took Care of Our Minds the Way We Take Care of Our Hearts

How the culture of silence around suicide and mental health is killing us

I don’t recall where I came across a portrait of Kate Spade yesterday morning. There was no headline or descriptor but I had a feeling that she had killed herself.

There’s something about the photos selected for news articles about famous people who end their lives. They’re usually a portrait. A portrait of just them, by themselves. Alone.*

(Why not use a family photo or one in which we can see Kate Spade in a joyous time of her life? Just a thought.)

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*Google image search results for “Kate Spade.” Portraits.
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Kate Spade and family. Photo courtesy of @GettyImages

Mental Illness is Not Like Other Health Conditions – Not.

I’ve known of Kate Spade but don’t know much about her.

When I saw the photo of her, I thought,

She’s a celebrity and in front-page news…suicide, I bet.

People are born fighting to live, to thrive. Our will-to-live is in our DNA.

So, why would someone choose to end their life?!

That’s a big question and one that can’t be fully explained nor understood with words.

***

I’ve been fighting to manage depression and anxiety for over 25 years; in that time, I experienced a series of traumatic events, so I can tell you what it’s like to live with a mind illness (AKA mental health illness). I prefer to use the word “mind” vs. “mental” but I use them both.**

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**Repost from my Instagram account @lady_archivaion

Having a ‘mind illness,’ no mater the diagnosis, makes you feel CRAZY.

Think about it, when you feel heart palpitations, you notice it, acknowledge it, you tell someone — they worry and make you go to a doctor, hopefully.

You break a bone. Everyone — whether or not they’ve broken a bone — can see that you have a broken bone and that breaking a bone fucking hurts.

Or, you acquire a cough that lasts for weeks. It’s your body telling you that something is up and you should probably tell someone and check it out (please!)

But (!) when

you experience
anxiety,
depression,
bi-polar disorder,
body dysmorphia,
bulimia,
Flip through the enormous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and pick a diagnosis.

…your actions and words, e.g. sleeping a lot, eating a lot or very little, canceling plans all the time, yelling random things in public etc.

These are the parts of your mind illness experience that are detectable, tangible. These are what we call “symptoms.” These are the ones we can see.

But these kinds of symptoms don’t tend to elicit empathy or compassion from others.

People walk away.

They stop sending you invitations.

They are angry and annoyed with you for always being late and/or grumpy.

You get written up at work for ‘problem behavior and performance’ (true story for another time.)

You’re called any combination of “lazy,” “crazy,” “nuts”, “insane,” “immature,” “weird,” “overly dramatic,” “attention-seeking,” “unfocused,” “hopeless.”

These are the things people with mental illness tend to experience on the outside.

On the inside, inside our minds. That’s where the pain lies. Invisible to everyone else but yourself.

And your culture tells you to keep your invisible pain a secret.

Yeah. Carry it with you fully on your own shoulders. Don’t be a burden on others.

Ssssh. Keep a still tongue and hide your pain. No one is going to understand you, anyway.

Pretend to be OK and exhaust yourself more fully trying to act and appear “normal.”

While you’re at it, feel shameful and guilty about having a mental health condition.

Seriously, What is Wrong With Us?!

In an article in The Kansas City Star, Kate Spade’s sister shares some insight into Spade’s history of internal turmoil:
“Kate Spade’s older sister [Reta Saffo] told The Star on Tuesday that her famous designer sister suffered debilitating mental illness for the last three or four years and was self-medicating with alcohol.”

She shares how her sister was fixated on the news of Robin William’s suicide and speculates that her sister began planning to kill herself at that time.

Yet, in the next breathe, she says about Kate Spade’s suicide, “[it] was not unexpected by me.”

Huh?

This seemingly conflicting response is a symptom of our inability to talk about mental health issues, including sharing our personal experiences with mind illness.

We’ve come a long way since ‘lunatic asylums,’ but we still ostracize and oppress “insane people.” We stigmatize mind illness through assumption, judgement and silence, and it’s reflected in our disappointingly inept mental healthcare system.

I digress.

Is the Image of Being OK More Important to Us Than Our Own Lives?

From the same article, ““Spade seemed concerned how hospitalization might harm the image of the “happy-go-lucky” Kate Spade brand, [her sister] said.”
I’m here to tell you that emotions and moods aren’t black and white. You can be “happy-go-lucky” and live with depression; they’re not mutually exclusive.

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A Kate Spade quote. Photo courtesy of @Pinterest.ption

I’m saddened — and pissed off, frankly — that people choose to end their lives because they’re worried about how the public will view them, how their friends and family will view them.

Our cultural stigma around mental health is so disgustingly powerful. Do we really value holding up the image of feeling OK over taking care of ourselves?

No. I don’t think so either. So, let’s do what we can to change the culture around mind wellness. Brain health. Mental health. Whatever you want to call it.

Sometimes it’s not enough to have a support system and resources. Kate Spade had a loving family who were attentive and caring of her mental illness. She also had the means to afford top-notch treatment.

“…in the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.” — Kate Spade’s sister, Reta Saffo


Saffo went on to say, “Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves!”

I disagree. I think we can. But it’s going to entail saving people from our culture of judgment and prejudice against mental illness.

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A Kate Spade quote. Photo courtesy of @Pinterest

Enough of losing lives to the concern over public opinion. No more treating heart issues with worry and understanding, and treating mind illnesses with fear and alientation. 

We can absolutely change the culture around mind wellness through compassion, curiosity and openness.

I have hope that we can support and save people like Kate Spade, who have been victims of an antiquated and out-of-touch societal and systemic stigma.

Kate Spade, thank you for bringing fun fashion, vibrant color and glittery sparkle to this world.

And thank you to the many individuals, groups and coalitions out there who are promoting or providing advocacy and support of mind wellness. And thank you to those who make yourselves vulnerable by sharing your mental illness stories. You are saving lives.


Are you experiencing thoughts of suicide?

Having suicidal feelings or thoughts is normal but they’re a frightening and a sign that you need care and support — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Do you suspect someone may be suicidal?

Often, people make vague worrisome statements or gestures alluding to ending things.

Connect with them.
Be direct.
Ask if they want to kill themselves.
One question could save their life.


Suicide Prevention Resources

Find a list of suicide hotlines around the world here.

In the US, Canada and United Kingdom, you can text a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.

(I volunteered with the Crisis Text Line and can vouch for their thorough counselors training and compassionate approach. These are people giving up their time to support strangers in need. Use them. They want you to!)

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Originally posted on Medium.com.

To smile at people. awkwardly

It took me 8-or-so years to finish undergrad.
I was in-and-out of university numerous times.

Over that period,
I experienced multiple:

  • bouts of depression —if it ever really let up—
  • a few suicide attempts
  • counselors (one of whom fell asleep as I was talking) Um.  #YESway
  • doctors, shrinks, medication (I couldn’t tell you what all of them were, off-hand)
  • quick starts-and-ends of relationships
  • friendships in limbo

…packing in and out of dorms, apartments, houses, Fairfax Hospital in-patient, a house on fire, stranger’s beds.

In that time, I cut my wrist with a Cutco knife while fighting with an ex.
My words didn’t feel like they were able to carry what I was feeling.
I was a #fRacturedGirl. living with a dizzying head on still shoulders.

I clawed through most days;   barely surviving,

just:

to open my eyes.

to get up.

to go outside.

to be normal.

to do work.

to smile at people.       awkwardly

to act unafraid.

It took me 8-or-so years to finish undergrad.
I was in-and-out of university numerous times.


And, now?

I’m trying to figure out where to hang my framed diploma from Antioch University Seattle for a master’s degree in Psychology. I couldn’t be more proud of me.


If you’re struggling and the future seems hopeless.
If you feel like there is no end to the excruciating battle.

I beg of you, please. DO NOT GIVE UP.

Reach out. You’re worth it. People love you. People care. I care!

All of those things that the trickster voice in your head tries to get you to believe – they’re lies.

You, my friend, are a fucking warrior.


This freewrite was inspired by a post that popped up in my Instagram feed:

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Image source: @Instagram screenshot of a repost by @mentalillnessquotesinfo

Note: Links to mental health resources are within text, i.e. “depression” hyperlinks to the 24-Hours Crisis Clinic site.


Bonus:  13 Mental Health Resources That Are Absolutely Free (Huffpost)

Leave little gifts for you.

My parents are moving into a smaller house so they’ve started the process of going through their things. Things they’ve accumulated over the past 40 years or so. As a lot of children do, I’ve stored things of mine at their place over the years so I’ve started looking through them. Some I’ve packed and unpacked between multiple countries from the time I was in elementary school. One treasured item I thought I’d lost in a house fire almost 10 years ago was in one of the boxes – a leather-bound journal given to me by a friend. I probably hid it away in a box because at the time I’d had it, I made some very poor decisions and treated friends (and myself) terribly. I needed to store it away for a while, to keep the writings at a distance, I suppose.

I am so glad and thankful that I still have it. I read through it quickly last night. Some powerful stuff in there. Painful. Painful and beautiful. I can see my determination to ‘sort things out’ and overcome in the words. I had this journal at a time when I ended up in an ambulance to the hospital because I’d taken an overdose of medication at home alone during a workday. I remember laying on my bed. Staring at the door and imaging my mom finding me there. I cried. And pounded on the mattress a bit, I’m sure. I became frightened as I imagined the strength of my heart beating in my ears weaken and slow. I leapt up to call 911. I didn’t want to die.

Most people who attempt and commit suicide do not want to end their lives. But consequence and impulsiveness oftentimes brings people to kill themselves. It’s an impulsive act. One that happens at a time when a person feels hopeless, overwhelmed, worthless, and perhaps many more terrible things. Or numb. But these, as all emotions on the spectrum, are fleeting. As are impulsive actions. But suicide is irreversible. It’s a permanent decision if succeeded. It’s important that that you or someone you know reaches out when feeling this way. If experiencing suicidal ideation, please please PLEASE reach out. If someone talks about thinking of taking their life, take it seriously. It’s a serious thing regardless of how they tell you. It may seem non-challant. They may bring it up jokingly. Take it seriously. Ask straight up if they have an idea of how they’ll take their life and whether they have the means. Assess their safety. Call 911 if you must to keep them safe and keep them on the line until help arrives. Do the same for yourself. Help someone or yourself get through those horribly painful times.

I’ve shared this video before, a TED talk given by a man, JD Schramm, who attempted suicide and miraculously survived a jump from the Manhattan Bridge. His words are beyond powerful and provide a unique insight. After committing himself to following through and surpassing suicidal ideation to action, he survived. He survived and had the rare opportunity to commit to rebuilding his life. His message to those who may feel suicidal is simple and true, “It gets better. It gets way better.” Take it from him.

I wasn’t planning for this to be a heavy post, but here it is. The unearthing of things. stuff. from years past does that sometimes. You realize that your body and mind have moved past or forgotten the reasons behind the associated sentimentalities. You realize that those difficult times when you felt that your situation wouldn’t get better, or the pain you felt has seeped in to your bones and won’t go away – you realize that those experiences leave little gifts for you. All it takes is getting through. These are some little gifts I found:

why does hair look so beautiful
when it’s carried by the wind.
trees fluttering leaves
like butterfly wings.
I want to go somewhere
naked and pure
that’s never been seen
I want to feel the earth with my toes
close my eyes when the wind blows.
I want to smell it on my skin
when I’ve returned home.
bring that feeling back.
the vision in colors and shapes.
I want to listen to the birds for a while.
share smiles with the sky.

Written Sunday, September 15th, 2002 @ ~12:30pm in Port Townsend on the hammock in my parents’ backyard.
*

you love me
because you want to.
esteem is found in self.
not eyes or kisses.
it makes sense
when you stop looking for things
that you’ve taught yourself to need.
you have to pull those thoughts like weeds.

Written Wednesday, September 18th, 2002 @ ~4:30pm, Metro #105 home.
*

Mom can’t find me
like this
fresh cuts and a belly full of loathing
wine and veggies in a grocery bag
dirty sheets, snowstorm on the t.v.
music playing in the background.
what would she have found?
broken, withered, silent.
sing me a lullaby, momma
sing yourself to sleep.
rubber kisses
icicle fingers and shiny rings.

Written Tuesday, December 24th, 2002 @ ~5:15pm on the Kingston ferry.

The girl who knew too much: a story of suicide.

I recently had the opportunity to view footage of and write about a documentary in-the-making about a story of suicide. This will be an amazing film and I can’t wait to to see it. In the meantime. An article I wrote as a guest contributor to The SunBreak:

 

Seattle Documentary Filmmakers Talk About a Subject’s Suicide

Special to The SunBreak by Odawni AJ Palmer.

Suicide is an increasingly significant global public health problem but stigma and other cultural and social factors keep suicide out of public discourse. It’s a silent and solitary act that needs to be talked about at a higher volume.

After viewing a 30-minute rough cut of Scott Squire and Amy Benson’s documentary footage of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which explores their subject’s suicide in Nepal, this is exactly what we did — a panel-led audience of filmmakers, educators, human rights activists, mental health specialists, and native Nepalese — we talked.

Before they rolled footage, local filmmakers Squire and Benson gave a brief introduction of how they arrived at West Seattle’s Youngstown Cultural Center, presenting this concept piece. In 2008, the couple traveled to Nepal to begin a documentary about education changing the lives of girls who’d received school scholarships via a non-governmental organization’s program.

One of the girls, Shanta, captured their attention with her intelligence and ambition, so they followed her on her journey.  The following year, after the couple returned to Seattle to take a break from filmmaking, they learned that Shanta had hung herself. Devastated and confused, Squire and Benson returned to Nepal and interviewed her family about Shanta’s suicide. They wanted to try to understand what happened. What went wrong? What could have been done to help Shanta? Why did Shanta commit suicide?

Why does anyone commit suicide?

With The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Squire and Benson have the tragic opportunity to show us what it looks like before someone acts to take her life. They asked us to consider some questions as we watched the footage: What theme speaks to you? What did Shanta need? Why should we care? What can we do?

It’s clear that Shanta was isolated by her pursuit of education.

“Being smart is difficult in my situation,” she says. She has moved to the city to attend school, and away from her parents and younger sister who live in a low-resource rural community. She now lives in a crammed studio space with her brother, sister-in-law, and toddler-aged niece. Shanta sits at her “desk,” the edge of the family’s shared bed, maintaining focus on her studies as her niece makes many attempts to play and her sister-in-law sits nearby.

The film cuts to a later interview with her sister-in-law: “It’s not good to be over intelligent. Look what happened to her,” she says after Shanta has killed herself. The sister-in-law blames intelligence and Shanta’s drive to learn, rather than consider that Shanta’s decision to kill herself was possibly a result of a deep internal pain. (Suicide is illegal and punishable in Nepal.) The disconnect is clear.

Additionally, Shanta is a Dalit, a member of a lower Indian caste. She gets shoved out of line by women of a higher caste when she goes to town to collect water.  She is met with regular social oppression and discrimination but Shanta keeps with the “culture of silence.” Women in Nepal are pressured to suppress their negative emotions. Could this be a precipitating factor in Shanta’s decision to hang herself? Did she have friends or adult figures to talk to? Who did Shanta look to for emotional support? Did she feel as though she could seek support?

These are questions that Squire and Benson hope to find answers to.

In fact, Shanta’s story is one of many stories of suicide in Nepal. Her story is one of many, many stories of suicide in countries around the world. Stigma is a globally pervasive factor in our ignorance of a major public health problem, one that keeps suicide a silent issue.

Recent research finds that “[m]ental disorders account for 11.1% of the total burden of disease in low-resource countries such as Nepal.” In their conclusion, the authors suggest culture-specific approaches to addressing suicide based on their research findings. A 2010 report by the World Health Organization tells us, “[i]n low and middle-income countries 75% of people do not get the mental health services they need.” But WHO’s mental health Gap Action Program (mhGAP) argues that “with costs as low as US $2 per person per year, and with proper care, assistance and medication, millions can be treated.”

In Squire and Benson’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, they’re working to unearth the causes of a single suicide in Nepal. But their film will have the power to ignite and inspire conversations about suicide in private and public spheres wherever it’s shown. Suicide is not any individual’s issue. It’s a global public health problem, one complicated by the fact that treatment “will need to be tailored to suit the different etiology, culture, expectations, resources, skills and spiritual beliefs of both patient and doctor” (Benson & Shakya).

Because suicide is so often an act shrouded in shame, silence, and secrecy, there are a lot of questions to ask. A suicide survivor, J.D. Schramm, said at a TED Talk, “because of our taboos around suicide, we’re not sure what to say, and so quite often we say nothing…. It’s a conversation worth having.”

Scott Squire and Amy Benson are raising funds to return to Nepal in January 2013 to complete their film.  They will follow up with Shanta’s sister and conduct interviews and on-the-ground research to learn more about what happened in Shanta’s case and to learn more about suicide in Nepal. Benson tells us that Nepal’s first suicide hotline will be set up, “This will help us to see who’s calling in and why.”

Contributions to The Girl Who Knew Too Much project can be made at this Kickstarterpage. You can find project updates here.

***