Success Doesn’t Equal Happiness

With the two notable losses in the last week, a well-known and respected designer, and an irreverent, yet empathetic chef, author, and journalist, to say that I have been shocked is an understatement. But losses like these force us to look past what we consider success and to recognize these people as people – ones who have flaws, ones with troubling pasts (and possibly current), and ones who, despite all of the outward appearances of success, may have defined it differently.


I can’t say I was a Kate Spade fan, but her designs always appeared so happy, bubbly, smart, and made a statement when you saw one of her purses or accessories. Often we present our works in ways that attempts to show the world what we approximate…happiness, contentment, peace. The beast of depression and other forms of mental health issues aren’t ones that are fully present and observable in the light, but in darkness, they overwhelm those who experience them. She had a teenaged child, and many parents can’t fathom leaving a child behind if they can choose. We all saw Kate Spade as someone with “it all” – a husband of several decades, privilege, success, financial stability, innate fashion sense, business savvy, and a child, many things most would envy.


But underneath the public persona, she must have been suffering. Of what, we can’t be sure. If she was seeing a mental health clinician, I hope that person(s) are taking care of themselves today, as there is a high probability of all of us clinicians experiencing the loss of a client by suicide. Assuming no negligence on their part, people intent on killing themselves will often find ways to make others think everything is fine to throw off suspicion, or they impulsively make a decision that can’t be undone. Rates of suicide are on the rise, and journalists and those who have a public voice have a need to report suicide with empathy, information, and professionalism.


When Ms. Spade’s death was first reported, the method by which she completed suicide was stated, as was the reported contents of a suicide note. For our knowledge, the method is unimportant, and often sparks other suicides through contagion, that the mere knowledge of a suicide often increases the likelihood of other suicides occurring, and reporting the method is not necessary to identify to know that the person passed by suicide. Also of issue is reporting that someone “committed” suicide. Stating that someone engaged in a criminal act without due process is imposing more shame on the person and on their family. If we use phrases such as “completed suicide” or “died by suicide”, it states facts without imposing more shame or indicating a criminal act. Yes, a person was killed, but it is a crime that can never be prosecuted, and responsible journalism needs to improve their adherence to style guides on how to report on such stories. Reducing stigma starts with reducing shame for having mental illness that leads a person to take their own lives.


It was later reported that Ms. Spade and her husband were living separately, but not officially separated. So more clarity in some of the stressors in her life, but not necessarily what may have transpired to make suicide the inevitable option. We as the public are not entitled to that information. Only her treatment team, if she had one, and her family would be entitled to that information. Anyone who questions her love of her child and of her family due to her manner of death doesn’t get what depression does to people. It changes them. It leaves them shells of their former selves, and often makes them think negative thoughts, while inherently untrue, creates a new reality for these folks, many of which they can no longer feel they can live with. Our outside perspective is just that – outside. We don’t feel the pain they experience, or understand their view of their own problems, however minor in appearance. We can’t fathom that people who are ”successful” don’t have resources to seek help, and therefore were struggling alone. Many people isolate themselves due to their symptoms of depression, thinking it’s easier to be alone so as not to burden anyone else with their issues. If someone you know is doing so, PLEASE DO NOT IGNORE THIS. Provide them with as much love, support, and empathy as you can, and don’t allow them to be missed.


The news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing has hit me harder. I binge-watched “Parts Unknown” over several months, and loved how up close and personal the show took you into a different culture, often ones left unexplored by a majority of the world. He was irreverent, rock and roll, intelligent, and an emotional being. One episode that demonstrated his love for humanity and distaste for how humanity treats itself was evidenced on the Gaza Strip. His disgust at how the fight was more important to the two sides than the safety of its smallest residents showed how he can empathize with struggle. He was no angel – he spoke openly about growing up during the 70s and 80s in kitchens, rampant with drug use, and how he did some really stupid stuff. Now clean from drugs, he parlayed his use of the English language to write several memoirs, novels, and used his desire of traveling to produce several different shows on learning about a culture from its food and customs.


He also had a teenage daughter. His eyes became more opened as he aged, despite being entranced in his travels, he recognized how important it was to raise his daughter now being divorced from his wife. He intentionally stayed home for longer stretched to ensure he would have quality time to spend as a parent. Despite all of his knowledge of the world, he routinely talked about how impacted he has been by what he has seen, which was said from a place of hurt and pessimism. His hope in the world waned, which is one of the tell-tale symptoms of someone who struggles with depression. Now, as recently as his last interview in February, he reported that he was happy. An article on Food and Wine’s site noted his happiness, and the specter of depression in kitchens and restaurants worldwide. Success, defined simply, does not equal a person being and remaining happy.


Even if a reason, a letter, or journal entries are found as to why anyone would complete suicide, it will never help us understand any more what motivated a person to seek out the ultimate ending to their story. That person took what others in their family and friends wanted – to breathe in their aura and recognize that person’s connection to the world; their influence and their mark on the society at large. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain certainly left theirs, and we are left behind to cherish their memory for how they have influenced us.

Action Steps:

  • If you are concerned about someone you love and cherish, or even yourself, you can call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) to speak with a crisis counselor.
  • You can now also text CONNECT to 741741 if calling is too difficult.
  • But if you know of someone in crisis, or possibly isolating themselves intentionally, PLEASE REACH OUT TO THEM. Do it physically, by phone, by text, but don’t stop until they see you in person. Let them know your concern, and ask that you be able to bring them food, a funny movie, or something that will let them know you care and want to help, just as you would to someone who is recovering from an illness. Don’t think they will reach out to you. They most likely won’t and also don’t have the emotional energy to do so. Social media, the internet, and apps are supposed to connect us, but they are doing a better job at isolating us. Care about your fellow people. #BeThe1To prevent the suicide of someone you care about.
  • Attend a local NAMI meeting. Find one in your area here.

Take care,