Within the span of a week, fashion designer Kate Spade and television host Anthony Bourdain both committed suicide, shocking millions of fans across the world. Hearing news of anyone dying by suicide after battling mental illness is tragic, but the deaths of Spade and Bourdain felt particularly disheartening. Each was a middle-aged adult with a young child. They had seemingly enviable lives — successful careers, financial prosperity and strong relationships with family and friends. Their deaths were sobering reminders that depression is a legitimate and serious illness that affects all kinds of people.
In response to the deaths of Spade and Bourdain, many social media users shared their own experiences. Some told deeply personal stories about their struggles with mental illness while offering messages of hope. Others offered heartfelt gratitude for friends who helped them through particularly difficult times. Many urged their friends to reach out and listen to loved ones and preached a greater need for kindness and compassion.
These messages were genuinely inspiring, and any plea for more love and decency in our increasingly chaotic world is always necessary. What these comments do not acknowledge, however, is that there are systemic problems that block vulnerable people from getting the mental health care they need.
Currently, mental health treatment is prohibitively expensive for poor Americans. According to Slate, “Forty percent of adults with severe mental illness did not receive any psychiatric care within a one-year period.” Recent cuts to Medicaid and constant attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act will likely make this care even less accessible. President Trump’s budget proposal included spending cuts for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, the United States is experiencing a shortage of inpatient psychiatric hospitals and medical specialists.
If we are to get serious about preventing suicide, we must ensure that quality mental health care is affordable and accessible to every American. GOP lawmakers use mental health issues as a convenient scapegoat for mass shootings, but when it comes to actually improving mental health care, these representatives are unable to offer viable answers. As a starting place, it is imperative to maintain funding for Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. (Hopefully, these programs will lead to more comprehensive health care reform that makes all types of health care less expensive). Lawmakers should also seek more permanent solutions, including publicly funded research on mental health issues and an increase in inpatient facilities.
Unfortunately, making these changes will not be enough to help every person and prevent every suicide. Both Spade and Bourdain were wealthy, and they had access to resources that many Americans cannot afford. The millions of Americans suffering from mental illness face complex issues that require a multifaceted response. On an individual level, we have a responsibility to support friends and family members with mental illness. We must reach out to particularly vulnerable populations. For example, LGBT youth are at a much greater risk for suicide. We need to continue to fight stigmas surrounding mental health problems. Too many people still doubt that depression and anxiety are “real diseases,” and some mentally ill people suffer in silence because they feel ashamed. In a culture that too often values a facade of stoicism, it is essential to remember that real strength comes from accepting help and prioritizing your health.
These societal changes are necessary and long overdue. But we must also demand that our government addresses the suicide epidemic with actual policy change — and not just meaningless statements. Utah has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country. Too many Utahns have lost a loved one to mental illness. Even after the news cycle moves on from covering high profile suicides, the need for affordable mental health care will continue.
If you are considering suicide and need to talk to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.