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.