The death of iconic fashion designer Kate Spade of an apparent suicide inside her Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan shocked fans of her work and begs the questions: What would cause a woman who seemingly ‘had it all’ to reach such a point of desperation? And why does suicide take the lives of so many of the world’s most accomplished and successful people?
Spade joins the ranks of other luminaries who have ended their lives: Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Van Gogh, physicist Percy Williams Bridgman, film director W.S. Van Dyke. The list is too long.
We think that success ensures happiness and protects a person from mental distress and suicide. However, the reality is that those of us chasing the corner office or the initials VP after our name may be more prone to depression and anxiety than the average Joe bussing tables at the local diner. In fact, some research indicates that CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of the general public.
Entrepreneurs and depression
Michael Freeman, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco examines the relationship between mental health and entrepreneurship and runs a consulting practice geared for entrepreneurs. For one study conducted through the University of California, Berkeley and the UCSF, he evaluated the mental health of 242 entrepreneurs and 93 comparison participants.
His results are illuminating for anyone who assumes CEOs and other highly successful people are immune to mood disorders. Self-reported mental health concerns were present across 72 percent of the entrepreneurs, which was significantly higher than the comparison group. Entrepreneurs reported more symptoms, with 49 percent reporting one or more lifetime mental health conditions. Entrepreneurs were also significantly more likely to report a lifetime of depression (30 percent), substance abuse (12 percent), bipolar (11 percent) than the comparison participants.
Why success isn’t everything
In one way, it makes no sense: the people who should be happiest aren’t. But if you look more closely at what it usually takes to get there and the patterns of behavior held by highly successful people, you find a perfect environment to grow the seeds of desperation.
The downside of ambition. Balance is key to emotional resilience. It’s also one of the first things tossed out the window when you’re fixated on a goal. Climbing to the top of any industry and staying there requires a single-mindedness that crowds out all the important, little stuff in your life that serve as natural antidepressants — like time to simply chill.
Compare and despair. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Constant competition is wearying, as you form a habit of assessing your self-worth based on your place in line. It’s also unavoidable if you want to become the best of your field. Few highly successful people have the luxury of stepping out of the race to regain perspective.
Deterioration of values. A recent study showed that weight loss efforts are contagious. If you hang with people trying to shed pounds, you’ll mimic their behavior and start losing weight too, even if that wasn’t your goal. The same is true in the celebrity world. If you’re mixing with the highfalutin crowd that espouses shallow values, it’s easy to lose yourself. After time, their values become yours.
The truth about suicide
In a commentary about the death of Robin Williams in the Telegraph, Jane Powel, director of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) said, “We have a series of assumptions about suicide that are explicit and implicit, and they make a toxic mix. One is that suicide is undertaken by failures: people who have no friends, who spend all their time in their room, who have something wrong with them.”
These startling statistics are enough to shatter most assumptions about suicide:
Suicide takes a life every 40 seconds, according to the World Health Organization, claiming more lives than car accidents and more lives than wars and natural disasters combined.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISQUARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2016 among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death for those between the ages of 35 and 54.
In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides in the United States as there were homicides.
Perhaps Kate Spade’s unfortunate death can spur highly successful people to get the help they need, to encourage them to use their ambition in pursuit of optimal health. Perhaps her suicide can remind us all to be vigilant about spiraling into desperation, and that no one is protected from suicide.
If you are having thoughts of suicide: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com for a list of additional resources.
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Therese Borchard is a Senior Editor of HealthCentral, covering Mental Health & Wellness, Brain & Nerve Health, and Skin Health. She has written for a variety of websites, including CNN, The Huffington Post, Everyday Health, and Psych Central, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. Founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, Therese advocates on behalf of those who live with depression and other mood disorders. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @thereseborchard.