Learning from the tragedy of suicide

In the wake of the recent celebrity suicides, I have heard a number of people remark that it is a selfish act because of the young children they are leaving behind.

It is extremely difficult to fathom the mindset of someone who is so deeply depressed that suicide feels like a viable option.

In my 35 years as a social worker, the last 28 of them in private practice, I have worked with a number of people who have been clinically depressed, and at times suicidal.

One of the striking features of this level of suicidality is that logic no longer prevails as a means of decision making. It is true that sometimes people are able to cling to their love of their children and family as a veritable lifeline which helps them to leave the mire of depression, or at least rule out suicide as a choice.

At other times, however, they have descended so far into the clutches of the disease that their thinking distorts, and they may conclude that their children and family would actually be better off without their presence on the planet. Shocking as it may be to their families and even to themselves when feeling better, at the nadir of depression, the access to hope has been cut off, thus strangling the notion that their children need them, and want them in their lives.

The children are not expecting a perfect parent, however that may be described, or whatever that looks like. Children unknowingly embrace imperfection as they hope for their parent to be ok, and even if they are struggling, want their parents alive.

The loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in such quick succession drives home the fact that fame, fortune, security and great jobs do not immunize someone from crippling depression. They also make clear how impossible it can be to determine how someone feels from the outside. Some people are publicly weepy or obviously depressed. With others, one might never guess the extent of the paralyzing illness.

Exacerbating this dire conundrum is the difficulty for anyone to talk about what is bothering them. For the clinically depressed person, the lack of motivation, energy and the pull to isolation make it a monumental task to both acknowledge it to oneself, let alone discuss with another person.

Perhaps most tragic of all is that depression is so responsive to treatment. A combination of medicine and therapy creates a powerful, though not infallible response to depression. I have witnessed people emerge from what has felt to them like an impossibly tenacious chasm of hopelessness, and return to jobs, relationships, and themselves.

The public deaths of these talented, engaged people makes evident the gap between depression and help. I have ideas about regular mental health check ups, and readily available treatment for everyone. Most of all, though, I wish for us as a society to have the courage to ask the difficult questions, to be willing to inquire of others and ourselves, and the equal courage to be able to respond affirmatively when one is upset and needing an extended hand in order to stay alive. 

It means being willing to be inconvenienced at times, being willing to put aside what may feel like a pressing task, in order to listen, really allow in what someone has to say. One would never regret missing work, a dinner, a movie, or meeting in order to help a loved one in crisis. But anyone would regret missing the opportunity to help someone from this fatal fall from an invisible cliff.

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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.