This week, people all over the world are mourning the loss of two celebrity icons, Kate Spade, renowned fashion designer and co-founder of Kate Spade New York, and Anthony Bourdain, famous chef, author, and television personality, who each made the decision to end their own lives in acts of suicide.
Millions of fans were left confused and heartbroken by this incredibly tragic turn of events. Both distinctly revered individuals, many writers have already penned beautiful retrospectives in tribute to their leadership and innovation. Rather than further elaborate on their biographies, I wish to take this opportunity to discuss the harmful stigma that surrounds mental health, and implore you to turn your gaze inward, so that we as a society may begin to overcome our cultural misconceptions and change the way we think about individuals suffering from depression.
I do so knowing it would have delighted Kate Spade.
I often have frustrated parents of a depressed teen come into my office and say something along the lines of, “I just don’t understand why she is unhappy. She has everything a girl could want. We have given her the best life—which is a dream compared to what I grew up with—and she still isn’t happy. It just doesn’t make sense. Why is she doing this to us?”
Do you know what that teen says to me privately? “I know I should be happy. Nothing is wrong, in fact, I have everything I could possibly want, which makes me feel even worse. I feel so guilty and ashamed for not being able to feel happy. I try to fake happiness as much as I can because no one gets me. Am I a terrible person because I can’t be happy?”
The general understanding most people have is that depression all depends on a choice to be happy or not. There are really two types of depression: situational and organic.
Situational depression is when we have a strong depressive response to a current situation. An example would be grieving the loss of a loved one, coping with a recent cancer diagnosis, or learning of a spouse’s infidelity. Depressive symptoms are natural bodily responses to difficult life situations. When it comes to situational depression, we expect the symptoms to reduce as time goes on as we adjust to the situation, or the situation ends.
Organic depression is the most misunderstood, and the one on which we need to shed more light. Simply put, organic depression is caused by our brains being chemically imbalanced. This imbalance in our brain creates the physical symptoms of depression (and anxiety, for that matter), as well as all the thoughts and feelings that accompany depression. Organic depression is much like the flu or the common cold—no one is safe from it. No amount of money, fame, love, friends, or success can prevent organic depression. Yet, if all the factors in our life look good on paper, our culture pushes this idea that we should be happy.
It is high time we disconnect notions of life circumstances from notions of brain health. A happy marriage cannot protect us from organic depression. Buying all the right clothes cannot protect us from depression. Being rich, having a beautiful home or a dream car cannot protect us from organic depression.
It is time to look at mental health from a medical lens and see it for the biological condition it is.
Brains get imbalanced for a variety of reasons, be it genetic or environmental, but never by choice. Organic depression is not negativity or pessimism. It is not being ungrateful or spoiled. It is a brain unbalanced, which gives people the experience of being in a dark and frightening emotional state.
We need to stop judging those who struggle with depression, and instead, have sympathy and a deeper sense of understanding.
You may be thinking to yourself that you are not judgmental when it comes to mental health, but let’s all do a gut check, and use Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain as examples.
See if this sounds familiar:
Did you hear about Anthony Bourdain? I just can’t understand why he did that. He had my dream job. Traveling all over the world and getting paid to eat amazing food. And he was so cool, he had the best personality. He had it all. He was handsome, rich and famous. How could he have had problems? Why on earth would he end his life?
I am so sad to hear about Kate Spade. I just don’t get it. What could have been so bad that she would end her life… Her amazing life. She had an insane amount of money, the best style, she was such a role model for all women. How could she not have been happy?
This search for an external reason Kate and Anthony could not cope with their lives is missing the entire picture. It is enough to say they struggled with depression. We do not need to find other reasons, other answers. We have the answer. All of their success, fame, fortune, families and lifestyle could not protect them from organic depression. Their brains were unbalanced, and this imbalance made them feel darkness and despair I hope you cannot even imagine. Depression is real.
I was recently in a conversation where someone said more mental health services need to be made available to those who can’t afford it, as those are the people who really need the help.
This attitude stands to highlight another part of the harmful social stigma behind mental health—that only people with hard circumstances can have mental health issues.
That a person who struggles with money deserves or is allowed to feel depressed.
That people who don’t have money problems are not allowed to struggle, that they should automatically be happy.
It is moments like these we can work to break the stigma surrounding mental health and begin to engage in conversations about what depression is and what it is not.
We need more celebrities, prominent leaders, and influential figures to speak up about their own struggle so we can break the myth that depression is simply a product of your surroundings and your attitude.
It is so important to get people to understand depression can happen to anyone, so no one will be afraid to seek help. When you have strep throat, do you avoid going to the doctor because you feel like you shouldn’t be sick, living in a nice clean home, therefore making you undeserving of germs? If you broke a bone, would you wait to get treatment because you should just live with it and try to see if you can feel better on your own?
We have got to remove the roadblocks of shame and stigma to the treatment of mental health.
Just because we cannot see what is happening in our brains on the surface does not mean the symptoms of imbalance are not real or untreatable. If you are avoiding treatment for depression because you do not want to take medication, understand there are many important and different approaches to bettering mental health that can make a significant, positive impact.
Diet, exercise, sleep, and cognitive and behavioral approaches have all been proven effective by years of research. Someone struggling with depression needs to be working with both a psychologist and a medical doctor to work on reducing and managing their symptoms so suicide does not become a strong consideration.
We all need to be open to encouraging and supporting those in our lives who suffer from depression. When people are diagnosed with cancer, we flock to their sides to rally our support and encouragement for the battle that lies ahead of them.
My dream for our society is that we do the same when it comes to mental health. When someone opens up to you about their struggle, do not ask them why or try to make them justify their pain.
Instead, start by saying, “Thank you for telling me. How can I help?”