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June 2018

Thoughts After Kate Spade’s Suicide

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When suicides are in the news, they always draw my attention as both a survivor of suicide loss and someone that is working to spread awareness and prevention information about this issue.

Like many others, especially of my age and gender, I felt Kate Spade’s death deeply.  First it was a reaction to her age as she was just three years older than I am. There was also her brand’s aspirational yet attainable place in my world as I was forging a career in NY in the 90s.  I have owned and loved 2 Kate Spade bags and one makeup case over the years.  I still have the make up case – even though I don’t generally wear makeup.

Reading she left behind a 13-year-old daughter, however, changed my entire relation to the story. I was 19 when my mother died by suicide and suddenly I was looking at everything through a child’s eyes. The film that plays in my head of the immediate aftermath rolled and I substituted the characters in my story for the ones I was reading about in Kate Spade’s family. I pictured her daughter being pulled out of class the way I was called to the Dean’s office as a college sophomore and told her mother killed herself. Just like that.

I then thought about her being around a swarm of adults who just had the floor drop out from under them and wonder if anyone is truly focused on her pain and loss.  I think about everything she will miss sharing with her mom going forward and find myself so grateful for the six “extra” years I had with mine.  I mourn the loss of her security and innocence.  I feel for the struggles she will face, the confusion and anger she will feel, and the lifetime of “what ifs” that will likely haunt her. I hope the family knows there is help out there and reaches out for it – for all their sakes.

I also wonder how all the information (true and false) that is now public will color her view of her mom’s life and death. I’ve found much of the coverage of this story appalling. My work as a volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has educated me about the importance of how suicide is discussed, especially in the mass media – and things are bad out there.

Even without training and experiencing a loss, as a human being I just know that reporting on the contents of a final note is inexcusable. Could there be a more personal document?  She did this in the privacy of her home, not in public, so outside of feeding morbid human curiosity what right does the public have to know? None. Her daughter likely hadn’t even digested that her mom was dead, made sense of the concept that she killed herself, or seen the note by the time it was in the news.  It should be her right alone to share that information if she ever wants to.  Couldn’t the police just simply say a note was left?

Not disclosing the contents of suicide notes is one of the standards in place that were agreed to between numerous mental health and media organizations based on over 50 studies showing certain types of coverage can be triggering for vulnerable individuals.  Good reporting, often just a shift in phrasing, can change misperceptions, help reduce the stigma, and encourage help-seeking behavior. The full guidelines and statistics can be found on AFSP’s website.

Not revealing the method is a very important component to safe reporting.  The first article I read  –Page Six of the New York Post – calling you out!– was barely a paragraph or two long but gave a detailed description of Kate Spade’s manner of death.  Even worse, headlines on various sites seem to be not-so-subtly implying there could be a connection between her and other designers who died the same way. I didn’t even have to read the articles to get their gist.

Then, of course, there are the  “why” articles?  What was the one thing that caused her to snap?  There is no answer.  Something dramatic like a relationship breakup, job loss, death of a loved one, may have triggered a suicidal episode, but the complex layers of issues that allow a person to get to that state come into play and overtake the mind. Many people go through incredibly painful changes, losses, and traumas and don’t die by suicide. As everyone is saying, on the outside she had it all, but on the inside she obviously did not.

It’s human nature to want to understand things that are incomprehensible and make sense of tragedies.  I admit I would be fascinated to learn more details of their stories, but research shows 90% of people who die by suicide suffered from a mental disorder and/or substance abuse at the time of death – so what can we ever really know about their state of mind? Often these conditions, temporary or chronic, go undiagnosed and untreated so the mysteries deepen.

Kate Spade’s sister wrote that she was obsessed with watching coverage of Robin William’s suicide. There was an abundance of reporting on his death and much of it not safe. If true, that, along with her husband’s statement confirming she’d been struggling with mental health issues for a few years, is a good example of how triggers along the way can build up until the whole dam breaks. And it’s just damn sad.

Take care of yourselves out there!

This link for the AFSP will direct you to resources if you are worried for another or yourself, if you are a loss survivor, of if you or a loved one has attempted.

If you or someone you know is suicidal
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7

If someone is actively suicidal and has access to lethal means call 911.