How The Deaths Of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain Portray The Complexity Of Mental Illness

Headshots of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain
Images: Getty Images and CNN

You may have heard people say that “mental illness doesn’t discriminate”, and nothing puts that powerful phrase into perspective as much as this. Both much-loved designer Kate Spade—famed for the colourful bags and dainty, playful footwear that so widely appealed to urban millennials—and American celebrity chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, sadly committed suicide in the past two weeks.

In an era of high-profile celebrities taking their own lives (Robin Williams, Alexander McQueen and Avicii, to name but a few) alongside the advent of Netflix shows like 13 Reasons Why—which brings the painful impact of high school bullying into the cold light of day, now must be the time to start asking big questions.

We need to ask the questions, listen to the answers, and then take serious action against the evident mental health crisis that’s leaving people from all walks of life with the hopeless sense that there is simply no other way out.

The New York times has described modern life as an ‘Age of Anxiety’, and contends that “anxiety has become our everyday argot, our thrumming lifeblood.” Here’s why the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are yet a further, tragic testament to this:

Anxiety and ambition are interlinked

While we’re not usually ones to quote Donald Trump (read: we’re never ones to quote Donald Trump), in his book ‘The Art of the Deal’—which tells the tale of the businessman-turned-leader-of-the-free-world’s real estate career, he discusses the notion that anxiety is always only a few beats away from ambition. He speaks of how “controlled neurosis” is a common characteristic among highly successful entrepreneurs—a category that was home to both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, too.

These days, the meaning of success is limited. When we see someone as successful, it usually means that they’re financially thriving, kicking “#adulting” goals (marriage, house, 2.4 children) and climbing that beanstalk of a career ladder. What we don’t see is the sleepless nights, personal sacrifice and constant feeling of edginess and anxiety that often plagues their everyday and can easily swallow them whole.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For all of its merits, technology has created a deeply-rooted sense of hurry within public consciousness. We’re constantly moving, constantly doing, constantly updating, constantly aspiring and constantly improving—and that has rendered us a society on the brink of burning the f*ck out.

External happiness and success does not equal a peaceful mind

As this article so perfectly put it “Kate and Anthony were successful, famous, wealthy, and, from an outsider’s perspective, possessed every conceivable reason to be happy with their lives. Still, they experienced a deep hopelessness… If putting on a smiling face was enough, [they] would have survived.”

As much as the conversation around mental health has grown, improved and made its way into the mainstream in recent years, there is still so much work to be done. Kate and Anthony had everything that most of us dream about, yet they didn’t possess the one thing that so many people take for granted—good mental health.

Self-care is survival

In light of such a solemn reminder that mental illness truly doesn’t discriminate, it is important to remember that self-care is survival. Meditate, eat well, sleep enough, get out into nature, take time out for yourself and don’t forget to breathe—while each thing might seem like a tiny droplet in a raging ocean, together they amount to things much bigger than themselves.

The mental health epidemic that is eating away at society will continue, indiscriminately, to prey on generations to come unless we make serious changes—as individuals and as a whole. Changing the conversation from anxiety and depression as just medical conditions to tackling it as a social disease that is, in part, born out of the way that we live our lives is fundamental to change.

In the same way that we remember cancer sufferers as losing their battle, so too did Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Except their disease was silent to the world and confined to their own minds—and it came with a mammoth stigma that so desperately needs to be dismantled before it takes its next victim.

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