I was recently devastated at the news that Kate Spade, and then Anthony Bourdain, died by suicide. These two tremendously creative, sensitive people, had made an impact not only on my life but on the lives of millions of others. Their deaths are truly tragic. But the one silver lining is that they have brought the subject of mental illness to the forefront of public thought.
Mental illness is often spoken about in undertones, associated with a societal stigma that even in the twenty-first century is relatively strong. But when a celebrity takes his or her own life, people who have never experienced depression first-hand suddenly have a plethora of questions:
“Why would someone who has it all kill themselves?”
“Can’t they make their lives better with all the money they have?”
“How come they seemed so happy in interviews or TV shows?”
These are all valid questions, even if they come from a place of ignorance. We cannot expect people to simply understand how depression can lead to suicide. Not if they’ve never gone through anything like it. And when even someone as joyous as Robin Williams dies in these circumstances, it might seem like an unsolvable problem.
However, since so many famous figures have taken their own lives, the incredulity surrounding the act needs to be confronted. By understanding why even famous people kill themselves, we can approach the topic with more understanding and take pertinent lessons from these tragedies.
Creativity and Depression
Before we get into why someone who “has it all” would commit suicide, I want to make a quick point about creativity and its connection to depression. Brain research shows a strong link between high levels of creative intelligence and depression.
There may be many reasons for this – creative people are better at imagining the suffering going on in the world, have a stronger sense of a need for meaning, and have a harder time settling for easy answers.
Most of all, creative people are generally highly sensitive. They need to be, in order to take in the life around them and express it in ways that are emotionally resonant. They “see” more than the rest of us, which can be a blessing and a curse.
Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade were certainly highly sensitive people. Their sensitivity certainly played an important role in their decisions to take their lives. But still, it is natural to wonder what could have been so bad in the lives of people who had so much? And what about those famous people who were not famous for their creativity?
Having It All
It’s become a bit of a cliché to say that no one can truly have it all. Fame takes away one’s privacy. Those who have it face tremendous pressure to perform. Nearly everyone wants it, but often, those who have it wish they did not. And still, they feel like they would be empty without it.
The drive to become famous is very much connected to a need to be loved. We all need to be loved, and most of us wish we could be loved by the whole world. But famous people tend to have placed far more importance in that validation. Even those who started out not really caring about universal praise get caught up in the glow of it fairly quickly.
The Counting Crows song Mr Jones has a line which its writer has admitted is meant ironically:
“When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.”
If you’ve ever felt lonely in a crowd, you can imagine that that’s only a fraction of what famous folk feel. At first, all the praise is irresistable. It feels incredible. But after a short time, they begin to feel like no one really knows them. They’re judged according to preconceived notions. And ultimately, the acclaim they receive is never going to be enough.
They’re caught up chasing something that’s impossible to find. They search for kinship in the numbers of people who know them, rather than in the quality of their relationships. It is difficult to step back from that point, and every gaffe or public outcry can feel like a mortal blow.
Fame can bring recognition, but it cannot solve loneliness. It cannot bring meaning. Instead, it can end up making its holders feel more alone than ever, and further away from a meaningful lie.
Author Bio: Dr. Nancy Irwin is co-author of “Breaking Through, Stories of Hope and Recovery” and a Primary Therapist at Seasons in Malibu World Class Addiction and Mental Health Treatment Center.