The recent deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef-writer Anthony Bourdain — both suicide, both a day apart — has, as it inevitably would, sparked a discussion about mental health and suicide.
That was, of course, immediately followed by a barrage of Instagram posts and tweets about how much these people — now that they’re dead — meant to those of us who are still alive. And most of us have never met either of them.
(Even more interesting than that, the ones who did know them likely never really knew them at all.)
More and more, we are living our lives in a digital world, carefully curating our Perfect Life Portfolio on Instagram while blurting out hate and criticism on Twitter. We’re humans, we want a community, we want to be part of something, we hate feeling left out. We can’t help but join in, posting photos of margaritas on National Margarita Day or tweeting #MeToo because we felt strongly compelled to show our support.
And yet, at during the same span of time that we’ve become more obsessed with social media, rates for anxiety, depression and, yes, suicide have risen. This is no coincidence.
I’m not sure why we’ve become so emotionally invested in social media, feeling its grip with every like and retweet. Wasn’t it so nice when you didn’t know what people (especially the ones we don’t like and interesting how we tend to follow them anyway) were doing, where they were traveling, who they were dating, what awesome jobs they just landed, how much weight they lost after giving birth three months ago? We used to live more in the present — and that present embraced the philosophy, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Now, everything is right there for the viewing — and all this information (good, bad, toxic and otherwise) is cluttering our already jam-packed brains.
I remember talking to a group of college students a few months ago about social media. I showed them the Instagram account of a fellow food blogger who has about 15,000 followers, a decent number by Hawai‘i standards. A guy in the back of the class scoffed at the number of likes for one her posts and said, “My roommate has fewer followers and way more likes. Her numbers are pitiful.” And just like that, he dismissed this person, rolled his eyes at everything she was about. He didn’t care about her decades-long career, the fact that she ran her own company and was very well-respected in the industry. At the very least, she’s made a career out of this — it has afforded her the ability to travel the world when she wants, buy a condo, change out her cars every year — and this guy wasn’t impressed. Her likes were abysmal.
What do we value these days? The number of followers we have — or the fact that we don’t know or care who they are as long as they click “follow”? Do the number of hearts and retweets equate to how much people like and respect us?
In this same class, we started talking about what’s important with regard to social media. Numbers, yes. Likes, definitely. But also, they care about who is liking their stuff — and even how quickly! These students literally scroll through the list of people who have liked their photos and make note of who did — and, of course, who didn’t. That same guy in class admitted that he spends hours just viewing the accounts of his friends and liking photos because “if I don’t, I get shit for it.”
So here we are, wondering why someone like Spade or Bourdain, who seem to have the dream career, loads of money, fans around the world, who never had to worry about college tuition for their kids or retirement, can’t find anything to live for.
Because when you’re depressed or anxious — or worse, and this is actually fairly common, the combination of both — you can’t see your life the way others do. You can’t see yourself the ways others do. It doesn’t matter how many positive reviews you get, how many likes and retweets, how many fan pages are created, how many people buy your bags or books, you are a failure, you’re not good enough, your life sucks.
In fact, the good stuff? At some point, you don’t even notice it.
I know this because I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety for most of my adult life — and it has only gotten worse in the past few years.
I hear it all the time, too: You have the best life, you surf all the time, you eat for a living, your son is so cute (that part is very true). But that doesn’t mean I’m happy. Or calm. Or dealing with a darkness that can sometimes consume me. (Why do you think I bake in the middle of the night?)
In fact, it has very little to do with the things we have.
The mind is a space that’s far more complicated and powerful than anything else. It can manifest pain if it wants opioids. It can create chaos where there is none. It craves attention, and if it doesn’t it, it can force you to pay attention.
That’s what it did to me recently.
I kept ignoring the signs, that my body was overworking and needed rest, that I was letting stress build inside of me without giving it an outlet. So my mind said, “If you’re not going to stop, I’ll do it for you.” And it did. I had a strange episode in a restaurant bathroom that one doctor likened to a seizure. I had a series of ear infections that I never took care of. And then my brain just shut down. A story that would normally take me an hour to write was now taking six. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t function.
(There’s a lot more to this, but I’ll save that for another blog.)
In the meantime, those old familiar feelings of depression and anxiety started creeping up my spine and taking over my body. I would struggle to work, get anxious about it, then spiral into a depression. Then I really couldn’t work — and then I would get anxious about that. See where I’m going with this?
And nothing — no compliment, no hug, no 13-by-9 pan of fudge brownies — was going to convince me that I could overcome this.
That took actual “mind work” — therapy (lots of it), meditation (if you’re interested, download the Headspace app), reading and time away from social media.
But who’s going to listen to me?
So when celebrities or influencers start talking about mental health, that’s when people take notice, especially people like me who are desperate for companionship in this lonely space. But here’s the catch: While all this media coverage of these two high-profile suicides are sparking the conversation about mental health — which, for some reason, we still seem so wary of — it’s also having an extremely negative effect. It’s called cluster suicides, a series of suicides in which one seems to set off another. It happens commonly after news of high-profile suicides, especially when the act itself supersedes the person committing it. (Read more here.) Not to say that healthy people are jumping off buildings to be like Bourdain. It’s the ones who are mentally struggling already, who see someone as successful and beloved feel there’s no other way out. As an article published on Vox put it, “it puts death on the table.”
How could the guy who wrote in his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, “I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” How could this guy decide there was nothing left to try?
What does that mean for me?
At least that’s the thought that went through my mind — and as shocking as that may sound, I’m sure it went through other minds, too.
So instead of focusing on their deaths — or even their lives — and how that has impacted you in some way, focus on your own mental health, focus on someone who’s struggling now, focus on creating home and work environments that support wellness, focus on laws and research that can help, focus on being kind and compassionate to everyone (because you don’t know their struggles).
Let this be the lesson that you share — not how many Kate Spade handbags you have.
Thank you 🙂
I’ve always liked your blogs, I now have a new level of respect and admiration. I have only the best wishes for you and your family when you may be experiencing a difficult time.
Aw, thanks for that comment. Itʻs just interesting how much we assume of others, that they live perfect lives or have the best jobs. You never know what lies within. Thanks for your kind words 🙂
Thank YOU for writing this. Because from the outside looking in, I think Kate Spade and Chef Bourdain were very high-functioning sufferers of depression, which makes it that much harder to see the signs. You are right, that to the outside world and social media, no one’s the wiser to the demons each of us struggle against and depression and anxiety are very difficult and sinister ailments. No one knows the depth of what grips the person suffering from these ailments. All each of us can do is to look out for ourselves and over our loved ones for the signs and reach out for help and support without judgement to sustain ourselves for the day, the week and so on…Much love to you Ms. Kat!
Yes, yes, yes, we need to be there for each other, take care of ourselves and be kind to others. That’s really the lesson here 🙂
A good read today. I’ve decided to thank you then shut down my social media for the long weekend. I’m here, a phone call or lane ride away from you.
YAY! BEST THING I’VE HEARD ALL DAY! 🙂
Best thing I’ve read in a long, long time. Outstanding story.
Aw, thanks, Mike! That means a lot!
Thank you Cat. I too suffer with depression, most days are good. Every so often I have a not so good day that no matter how much I Pray, eat, exercise, meditate, be thankful or try and talk it out with my husband, I cannot shake it off. The only thing i haven’t done is take medication because I am already on so many meds for other issues. These past couple of days has really made me think: food, travel and designer bags (mildly) are among my passions and here two people I admire who I thought had it all are gone. Anthony Bourdain’s quote that you mentioned went through my mind too. I sometimes think that money would solve a lot of my problems or at least make me happier because I could shop to my hearts content but I know that is not true. I have to be honest, I read your blog and post and always think you have the perfect life, I respect you for being so transparent and honest about your struggle with depression. Coming from someone like you , I really take what you say to heart and will start focusing more on the things you mentioned to bring healing. I also want you to know that I in the past my depression was much worse and people prayed for me, so in turn I will be praying for you. Thanks again for your honesty. Take care!
Thank you SO much for writing! I’m glad the blog helped in some way, at least it made you feel like you’re not alone. I feel that way when I talk to others who suffer from depression and anxiety. Our lives are never as perfect as we make them out to be on social media. No one is going to post the worst photo of herself or of the piles of laundry she hasn’t gotten to. We use social media often as a way to project what we want our lives to look like — and it’s not always very authentic. I find that the LESS time I spend on social media, the better I feel. So I really try to limit my time on it. What helps me is having a list of things I love to do, things that make me instantly feel better, things I’m grateful for. And whenever I start to feel myself slip, I look at that list. I have one on my computer, one on my phone, one taped to the wall in my room. It’s important to stay focused on what we HAVE.
You’re spot on, thanks for writing this. Kindness can make a difference, and everyone is experiencing ups and downs in life. We live in the most beautiful of times and most ugly of times. I’d rather be part of, and encourage, the former!
Yes, kindness is always the best idea 🙂
Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Personally, I think everyone I’ve ever met, including people who I interacted with for merely seconds, have experienced some form of anxiety, depression (or both) at some point in their lives. That’s why news from the past few days is both shocking and not a total surprise – because all of us have been *that* close at some point, whether or not we’d ever admit it. Every time this happens, people tell those who are hurting “to reach out.” However, they’re ignoring the very important fact that for those who are deep in the dark and don’t see any way out – “reaching out” isn’t something they’re able to do. They may want to. They may understand how important it is. But if you’ve been in that dark place (and again I think we all have, at some point), you know it is not as simple as making a phone call or talking to someone. That’s how mental illness works – it prevents you from doing things you know could help. So instead of everyone posting the suicide hotline, YOU reach out to your friends or to anyone who might need your kindness. YOU make the effort, because those who most need the help are often completely unable to help themselves.
Yes, completely agree. I told my husband before that he really needs to pull me out of this sometimes, even when I kick and scream. Get me out of the house. Shove me in the shower. Change my trajectory, even if I seem to WANT to stay in bed, under the covers. I really don’t. I just don’t know how to help myself. So yes, I’ve definitely been there! Thanks for shining a light on this very important aspect of what we go through — and what we need people around us to do!
Also: Everyone should absolutely have a therapist. Psychotherapy should be required, just like taking a test to drive or practice certain professions. The world would simply be better because we would first understand ourselves, which then allows us to understand others.
Thank you for sharing, we all suffer from depression, stress and anxiety to some degree and different levels. I can’t control what others say or do but I can control what I say or do. I’m thankful everyday for what I have and thankful that I have Jesus in my life. I will add you to my list of people that I pray for daily.
Yes, it’s always important to have faith and some kind of guiding light in our lives. Thank you for adding me to your prayer list. That means a lot!
Thank you, Cat. You are not alone. We have sorta known each other off and on since, what kindergarten? I didn’t know. But you probably didn’t know I suffer too. It manifests in different ways, but it always comes out in the darkest ways. I wish you peace and love (self-love too). ❤️ ????
Aw, thank you. Yeah, it’s such a weird thing to wrestle with because it’s hard to rationalize these feelings. Like, we SHOULD be in control and we SHOULD know better, but the mind is a powerful thing. I wish you all lots of peace and love, too. We all gotta do a better job of taking care of ourselves, especially when we’re so busy taking care of others!
Admiring your courage. Thanking you for sharing. Now to create some “headspace.“
Man, we all need some of that! Thanks for your comment!
mahalo, cat, for articulating a valuable pov and sharing your personal struggles. i am grateful for your having read your post which helped clarify the disturbing emotions recent events have stirred up. thank you for your good work. aloha!
I’m glad it helped. I find it useful to read other people’s experiences, too. Makes you feel less crazy!
Another Great Article Cat.
Know that we love you and are always here to support you.
Thanks, Chuck! I need more ocean therapy!
What was your response to Ben Siegel (RHS ’92) killing himself? I believe you laughed. Not that we should be judged by our 17 year old selves, we shouldn’t forget how we were…
Hi. I am not certain what your intent is with this comment. Is it helpful to bring up how someone may or may not have acted 26 years ago? No. Your comment itself says we shouldn’t be judged by past actions, particularly at an immature age. So if you are not going to contribute meaningfully to this post, please don’t bother.
Maybe turn off all the devices and connect with God. You have a blessing and need to be around to take care of him\them. Just relax and take it easy.