DECATUR — In the wake of the apparent suicides this week of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Central Illinois mental health experts are encouraging people to reach out if they are struggling.
“Of course people have their own reactions to terrible news like this,” said Chelsea Mueller, director of outpatient services at Heritage Behavioral Health Center, which has facilities in Decatur and Clinton. “The difference is how it translates to what we do as a society.”
The deaths of Bourdain, 61, on Friday, and Spade, 55, on Tuesday, brought the topic of suicide into the forefront of news headlines and social media posts. While media attention can bring understanding and awareness to mental health issues, insensitive language and headlines designed to shock can increase the stigma, said Mary Garrison, a professor at Millikin University and author of “Your Playbook for Beating Depression: Essential Strategies for Managing and Living with Depression.”
When high-profile people die by suicide, something called “suicide contagion” can occur, she said. Providing factual information and avenues for help such as crisis hotlines can decrease the numbers.
“Reach out to somebody,” said Karen Zangerle, executive director of PATH (Providing Access to Help) in Bloomington. “Reach out and talk to a stranger at PATH, who is someone who is going to listen to you open-minded. Reach out to your best friend, reach out to your spouse, reach out to an organization such as the Center for Human Services. (CHS). If you're not going to reach out, then my message to family and friends is reach out on behalf of the person who you are concerned about.”
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control, and rates have been climbing for years. There were 44,965 suicide deaths in 2016, and while mental health is often a factor, the 30 percent increase in death by suicide between 1999 and 2016 can't be attributed to any one single factor. In about half of those deaths, the person had no known mental health condition.
The number of suicides in Macon County has remained fairly constant since the 1970s, said Coroner Michael Day, with 14 in 2016 and 13 in 2017.
“We try to substantiate (before declaring a death a suicide), especially when dealing with substances,” Day said. “There's a misconception that everybody leaves a note or a voice mail or all these telltale signs as to what's transpired. We have to be able to substantiate the issue of intent beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
If you know someone struggling with depression or who has lost a loved one to suicide, the best way to help is to be available, Mueller said. No one wants to think they're being a burden, so offer to spend time together, to just listen, and not knowing what to say is fine. Being there is the important part.
Signs that could indicate a person is contemplating suicide include loss of interest in favorite activities; major changes in eating and sleeping habits; difficulty concentrating or making decisions; and talking about feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.
“It's finding your own support, whatever that looks like for you,” Mueller said. “Find the people you feel safe and comfortable enough with to talk about it. That's one of the definite benefits of social media. There are all sorts of people who have been through similar situations and are easier to relate to. It's important to say 'This happened, and I'm struggling with it, and I need to work through it.'”
Research has found a strong link between depression and suicide, Garrison said. While depression is caused by a chemical imbalance and can be treated, people without that treatment are at high risk of suicide, she said.
“Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have an existing mental illness or substance use problems at the time of death," she said. "Often, the substance abuse problem is linked to self-medication for the symptoms of depression one is experiencing. Due to societal stigma and lack of understanding of mental illness, individuals living with depression often hide their feelings and present publicly with what others expect of them — happiness and joy.”
It's hard for families and friends left behind to process the news that a loved one has taken his or her own life, Day said, and sometimes they had no idea the person was struggling. He holds inquests and a complete investigation is always conducted before the inquest, to give the coroner's jury ample evidence to make a ruling.
There are also times when a person might have accidentally caused his or her own death, and Day said he wants to be sure the difference is clear to the jury, so he reads to them the legal definition of suicide, which is that the deceased clearly intended to harm himself and that evidence exists to corroborate that: recent statements, a note, a history of suicide attempts.
“You have to look at the entire picture,” Day said. “Sometimes they do write notes. Sometimes they have a long history of depression and the family is well aware of it, so they can look at you and say this is something we've been concerned about and fearful of. In some cases, the families have urged or sought assistance of a medical or psychiatric avenue for loved ones. Other times, these things can happen and the family had no idea.”