A designer well known for bright colorful handbags, Kate Spade surprised everyone with her suicide. Money, fame, and success do not guarantee a healthy state of mind. This by no means disparages her, rather it highlights that mental health problems do not discriminate and there is no amount of wealth that makes one immune to succumbing to a mental health struggle.
There were some positive responses to this tragic loss in the media. When the New York Times reported on her death, they included the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline along with additional resources for people who may need help. Other media organizations followed.
Others were less responsible with their media coverage. Kay Warren, married to the well-known author of The Purpose Driven Life, lost her son Matthew to suicide in 2013, which was very much publicized. She expressed anger on Twitter about how the suicide of Kate Spade was reported by some outlets. “The more I read some of the media coverage around Kate Spade’s death the angrier I become. We, the public, don’t have the right to know every graphic detail. She has a family - a vulnerable, shocked, traumatized child. Please think of her when you write.” Warren is correct that there is no need to know every single detail about a suicide.
Suicide prevention experts concern about contagion with irresponsible media coverage, where the suicide of someone can contribute to a rise in suicidal behaviors in others. To prevent contagion, a suicide death should not include explicit details or specific information about how the death happened. In addition, excessive reporting or any comments perceived as glorifying a suicide death will negatively influence those who are vulnerable. When vulnerable individuals see how others died by suicide, it gives them ideas on how they might attempt.
Mental health experts were especially concerned when Anthony Bourdain, a celebrity chief, also died by suicide just a few days later. Two high-profile people - admired by many - who died in the same week has a bigger impact than those who are not household names.
This is not a new problem. Back in 1989, the CDC released “Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop” offering recommendations for news coverage of suicide contagion with concerns about how suicide is reported. This was 30 years ago before the media coverage became so widespread with the use of social media and internet outlets. Groups today are responding to this expanded coverage with guidance about reporting with today’s culture in mind.
The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention offers guidelines for journalists on how to cover suicide cases, especially with well-known personalities who have instant name recognition with a majority of people. The Independent Press Standards Organization in UK also provides suggestions on how to report suicide. Journalists are encouraged to reference these resources before publishing reports.
In the same week that both Bourdain and Spade died, the CDC released a report that suicides increased more than 30% since 1999 in half of states and is the number ten leading cause of death. And it is not so easy to pinpoint mental health signs since half of these people who died by suicide were not diagnosed with a mental health issue at the time of their death.
The media should continue to report suicide death responsibly because people will not know the extent of mental health problems unless it is reported on. Equally important to reporting on tragic cases is telling stories of people who were able to recover and stories that give hope to people who are struggling. And hopefully as more celebrities share triumphs through struggles, other people will see that there is the possibility of recovery.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an important and much-needed service operates 24 hours a day and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255