Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain: Mental Illness, Suicide, and Stigma

The suicide of two celebrities in a single week. Two people who had it all, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. No one spoke of their pain beforehand. None of us knew.

What does this mean for us as parents?

It means that after all this time, there remains a stigma associated with mental health that prevents people from talking about their health concerns. Which begs the question: if there had been no stigma regarding mental health issues, would these two celebrities and countless others now be dead by their own hands? If they hadn’t been afraid to reach out for help, or perhaps ashamed to do so, might they have received the help they needed to stop them from ending it all?

The stigma that makes it so difficult to speak of these things makes it even more imperative to speak about mental health year round and not just in May, a month arbitrarily chosen as National Mental Health Awareness Month. We must put a spotlight on the impact of dialogue. Especially when it comes to kids and teens.

Girl feels isolated, a risk factor for suicide

Mental health problems are not limited by age, and are in fact common among children and adolescents. Most children understand the meaning of the word “suicide” by the third grade, which should shock and dismay us as parents. As for teens, according to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), suicide is the leading cause of death in young people aged 15-19, with the leading cause of teen suicide being mental illness.

So where do we go from here? How do we remove the stigma? Facilitating dialogue is the obvious first step. And beginning the discussion of mental health at a young age will naturally translate into a better-educated adulthood. One where a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain could speak of their issues publicly and receive the help and support they need. To make positive change, in other words, we must start having tough conversations about mental health with our kids.

Understanding Diagnosis

Underscoring the fact that mental health should be an ongoing discussion, the National Alliance on Mental Illness  has found that, “more than 90% of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.” Understanding mental health and its role in our overall health is essential. The more knowledge you obtain, the easier it is to understand the importance of diagnosis and treatment.

Take depression, for instance. Thirteen percent of 12 to 17-year-olds experience some type of depression. As parents we need to know that depression is diagnosed when five of the following symptoms are present:

  • Feeling sad, or irritable and angry, nearly all the time
  • No interest in day-to-day activities
  • Loss or increase of appetite, noticeable weight loss or gain
  • Can’t sleep or sleeps too much
  • Nervous and jazzed up or listless
  • Tired all the time, has no energy
  • Feeling worthless or guilty without cause
  • Can’t concentrate or make decisions
  • Thinks about or talks about death and dying and suicide; May have a suicide plan

Boy feels hopeless, a risk factor for suicide

If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you may not know where to begin, or what questions to ask. You might take to Google and research your child’s mental health problem. But it’s difficult to know which resources are trustworthy. One good place to begin is Jumo Health. Among its many free health materials are several mental health resources geared to the layman.

There are Jumo discussion guides, for most of the common mental health issues affecting youth, for instance Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression. Each guide contains a set of questions that are illness-specific to help guide conversation between patient (or parent of a patient) and doctor. The doctor is a key resource in any mental health quest, the address for questions and a place to receive answers, too.

In addition to education, it’s important to establish the utter normalcy of a struggle with mental illness, to create an authentic voice for those who suffer. Jumo offers podcasts that follow the stories of real teens living with illness, including a series specific to mental health and suicide prevention. A teen can listen to the story of Gianna, for instance, a teenager who suffers from depression and anxiety.

Sympathetic mental health professional listens to teenage boy

In her podcast, Gianna shares her experiences with mental illness and a suicide attempt in order to connect other teens to her journey in a relatable manner. Hearing a real person like Gianna talk about a diagnosis of mental illness can allow other sufferers to feel a sense of camaraderie. Listening to Gianna speak, teens can come to feel that they are not alone.

Knowing the Risk Factors

Mental illness, for example depression, is the leading cause of teen suicide. But while depression and other mental health conditions are risk factors for suicide, a diagnosis of mental illness is only one signpost. Other behaviors and risk factors for suicide that should alert parents of teens to the possibility of suicide include:

  • Chronic physical illness
  • Family history of suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Acts out, is aggressive
  • Loss of income/financial problems
  • Social issues
  • Loss of or lack of social network, isolation
  • Loss of a relationship
  • Easy access to suicide means and methods
  • Knows someone who committed suicide
  • Past suicide attempt(s)
  • Mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia

Crying teenage girl on sofa hugs pillow as she speaks to older mental health professional about suicide

To be clear, having risk factors for suicide does not mean that your child will try to commit suicide. However, teens showing signs of these risk factors means there is a higher risk for attempting suicide than for those teens who do not have these behaviors and risk factors. To limit a teen’s risk for suicide parents should:

  • Offer easy access to treatment for physical and mental health disorders and for substance abuse
  • Limit access to methods and items that could be used to commit suicide
  • Provide unconditional support from a variety of sources, for instance, family, friends, and community
  • Work to build good relationships with and provide easy access to physical and mental health care professionals and personnel
  • Practice social skills at home, for instance problem-solving and nonviolent conflict-resolution
  • Hold and express strong household or personal religious and/or cultural beliefs that discourage suicide

Know whom to call if you need help. If you or someone you know is suffering from the threat of suicide, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides instant contact with a mental health care professional. Anyone who is depressed, thinking about committing suicide, or simply needs to talk can use this service. The lifeline provides free, confidential support to those in distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are in need, you can reach the lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There may be other local prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones.

Here is what you need to know: you can be the difference. The solution to improving the discussion on mental health is through awareness, education and support. You can break the stigma by beginning conversations about mental health. And that’s important, because those who are struggling should not feel ashamed or be afraid to speak out about mental health. To the contrary, asking for help and receiving treatment is something to be encouraged, a matter of pride.

Our teens see the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and they wonder: is suicide an option for me? We must let them know that the only option is to say, “I’m suffering. Help me, please.”

And then we must follow through with kindness and compassion. We must let them know we stand behind them no matter what and no matter how long it takes to get better. Because love is love: it knows no boundaries or shame.

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Talking to My Son About Suicide

Talking to my son about suicide was never going to be easy. But talking to my son about suicide when someone he actually knew died by his own hand is much, much worse. I discovered this to be the case when my teenage son’s close friend’s brother committed suicide some weeks ago.

My son and I have what I consider to be a better than average relationship when it comes to parent and teen relationships. We can really talk about the issues that affect him because he knows I research and write this blog and that I understand how teens feel about things. He knows that when he tells me stuff, I’ll get it.

(It also helps a lot that I let him have an evening Purim party in our home, which meant some beers were imbibed under watch of an older brother. I earned mother of the year award from my son and his friends for that particular deed, though probably not from any parents or parenting experts! After that, even my son’s friends felt they could behave like regular teens around me. They knew I wouldn’t judge.)

But when my son’s friend’s brother killed himself, I, the parenting expert, was not sure what to do. I only knew that I must open the conversation: the conversation about suicide. This is exactly what I did.

I wanted my son to know, first and foremost, that there is NOTHING he can’t say to me. I wanted him to know this because the boy who killed himself was well-liked and not considered to be particularly troubled by his friends. He was holding in his feelings of despair, trying to pass for normal. It became too much for him and he ended his own life.

I don’t want that to happen to my son.

So I told him he can tell me about anything that is bothering him. And so he immediately did. He told me of a mild hygiene/health problem which embarrasses him greatly. His friends tease him about it.

I knew the issue he was describing was not a serious one. But I knew that to him, the issue was serious indeed. I knew it was affecting his emotional well-being. So I took him to a doctor and made sure we took care of the problem to my son’s satisfaction.

Doing so goes to credibility. My son saw it demonstrated: he could tell me something embarrassing and not only would I not laugh, but I would do my best to help him.

I hope this gives us some insurance in future about my child’s ability to confide in me and seek help.

It was also necessary to discuss how my son would behave at the funeral, his first ever. The fact that his first funeral was for a boy just a few years older that had taken his own life made it more emotional, more difficult than it might otherwise have been. At the same time, all my son’s peers were going to be there, along with his teachers and educators. In the end, it was actually a massive funeral: our entire community was there as well as hundreds of people from outside the community. The large turnout cushioned things, made it feel like we were all coming together around this thing, to show our respects and comfort the family.

My son had questions. He wanted to know how to comport himself at the funeral and during the condolence call. He wanted to know if the outfit he’d chosen was suitable. Coaching him through the details and customs associated with a funeral was easy and comfortable. Watching him deal with the reality of the condolence call to his friend, the sibling of the boy who killed himself, was more difficult.

I knew my son did not want to make the condolence call, but knew it was the right thing to do. I watched him wrestle with the idea. I offered to go with him when I went to see the parents. He discussed things with his friends and it was decided they’d go as a group. This seemed like a sound plan.

A Google spreadsheet was circulated in the community of things to provide for the family, food-wise and cleaning-wise. One of the items they needed was a premium brand of ice cream, two pints a day, which it was felt would comfort the brothers of the suicide. I let my son see that this was what I chose to purchase and bring to the family. I wanted him to see that different people are comforted by different things and that we all need to endeavor to support and help them in this.

At the funeral, the mother of the suicide gave a eulogy. She was composed and dignified. She said she was offering not words of parting, but words of explanation. It was difficult to listen to what she felt she needed to say and it was especially difficult to hear her final words to her son: “It’s okay. You did what you needed to do.”

I understood that these were the words of a grief-stricken mother forced to bear the unthinkable. But it was not something I felt the hundreds of vulnerable, insecure adolescents in attendance should hear in relation to suicide. Suicide is NOT okay. No one needs to kill himself. There is always recourse for the troubled and depressed. There is always a way forward.

Suicide is terribly wrong, on every level.

Life is a gift, a value one should hold dear beyond everything. Even a soldier attempts to serve his country with minimal loss of life, even if it means he loses his own in the attempt. Life is the value supreme.

After the funeral, I spoke to many mothers in our community and saw they had also been disturbed about our teens hearing those final words of the grieving mother of a suicide. I wanted to know: what can we do about the effect of hearing those words? What can we as a community do about this?

I began to make calls. I called the community center and spoke to the liaison of all the area youth groups. I called my son’s high school and spoke to the head of the psychology department of our local school system. I was polite but firm, describing the issue as I saw it and asking: how are you handling this?

The educators, youth group leaders, and psychologist I spoke to appeared to share my concern. Discussions were held with the kids in local youth groups and in local classrooms. I was told that more conversations would be held as an ongoing discussion. The issue was raised at the next parent-teacher meeting.

I did not hide any of my activities from my son. He knew I was speaking to parents and making phone calls. I wanted him to see my concern. I also let him know how it would feel if he committed suicide, how his father and I would never fully recover, would never be the same.

I think–I hope–he saw our deep love through our expressions of concern and worry.

Blue Whale Challenge: Should We Be Concerned?

The Blue Whale Challenge. What is it? Is it real?

To the first question, put simply, it’s a game where the curator, also known as a “whale,” gives a teen fifty tasks, one per day. At the end of the fifty tasks, the teen is told to commit suicide.

Suicide is the only way to complete the Blue Whale Challenge.

Blue Whale Challenge: Real or Hoax?

It’s unclear if the Blue Whale Challenge is real or if it’s just an urban legend, a hoax. The Blue Whale Challenge was believed to have begun on Russian social media. A Russian man has come forward, claiming it was he who started the challenge. He said he manipulated teenage girls into killing themselves, using psychology.

It is believed that some 130 children in Russia have killed themselves due to the Blue Whale Challenge. The earliest known Russian teen suicide due to the Blue Whale Challenge may have occurred in 2015 when Rina Palenkova took a selfie a moment before stepping in front of a train. Incidents believed to be caused by the Blue Whale Challenge have also been reported in Estonia, Ukraine, Kenya, Brazil, and Argentina.

The name of the challenge is taken from a song called “Burn” by Russian rock band Lumen. The lyrics speak of a “huge blue whale” that “can’t break through the net.” The song continues:

Why scream,

When no one hears,

What we’re talking about?

The song was popular enough to have been heard and sung by thousands of Russian teenagers.

Russian parents are urging the world to believe the Blue Whale Challenge is real. This, as two incidents have occurred in the United States in recent weeks. That would be 15-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez of San Antonio, Texas, and an anonymous 16-year-old girl in Atlanta, Georgia. Isaiah hung himself in his bedroom closet, his cell phone nearby to record the act live. The method of suicide for the young Atlanta girl is unknown. The girl left clues through her blue tinted artwork that contains partially disguised whale skeleton shapes

None of these deaths can be traced absolutely to the Blue Whale Challenge, if it does, indeed, exist. But each time there are clues that in retrospect, appear to be alarm bells. The girl in Atlanta, for instance, asked her mom to step on the roof of the house. There were many photos found after the girl’s suicide, presumably her proof at completing the tasks on the list. One of them shows her mother stepping onto the roof.

What does the list of tasks look like? Some of them are daunting, others are harmless, even boring. Here’s a group of typical Blue Whale Challenge tasks, culled from Reddit:

  • Carve a phrase on your hand or arm.
  • Wake up at 4:20 am and watch a horror clip (sent by the curator.)
  • Make long cuts on your arm.
  • Draw a whale
  • Write “yes” on your leg if you’re ready to be a whale. If not ready, cut yourself multiple times.
  • Complete a secret task sent in code
  • Scratch a phrase on your arm.
  • Write a social media status about being a whale.
  • Perform a task that scares you
  • Get up at 4:20 am and climb up to your roof.
  • Carve a whale on your hand.
  • Watch horror films all day.
  • Listen to music sent by the curator
  • Cut your lip.
  • Poke your arm or hand with a needle.
  • Hurt yourself or make yourself sick.
  • Climb onto a roof and stand at the edge.
  • Stand on a bridge.
  • Climb a crane.
  • Take a test of the curator’s devising to prove your trustworthiness.
  • Speak with a “whale” on Skype.
  • Sit on a roof with your legs dangling over the edge.
  • Perform a task given in code.
  • Perform a secret mission
  • Meet with your “whale.”
  • Your curator assigns you your suicide date.
  • Visit a railroad.
  • Don’t speak with anyone for 24 hours.
  • Make an oath or vow about being a whale

It’s hard to believe that teens could be persuaded by strangers to kill themselves. It may be the adolescent brain at work, telling teens to follow their dangerous impulses, without imagining the permanence of the consequences. For this reason, Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC a family therapist suggests that spreading awareness of the Blue Whale Challenge is essential and can only be done by having a frank dialogue about social media, gaming and Internet use among parents, schools, and communities. “I would suggest making extra efforts to monitor the child or adolescent’s use of cell phones, computers, the Internet, as well as his social circle.

“Be aware of clues by listening to your ‘intuitive parenting’ when something feels off or unclear. Notice isolation in your child and check cell phones and computers regularly. If the child becomes too obsessive about the computer, cell, or a game, there is a clue the focus is too strong.”

Oleg Kapaev told Sky News that he undertook the challenge because he was “curious and bored.” He didn’t believe kids would really kill themselves because some random stranger commanded them to do so. This is due to the progressive nature of the tasks, which help to gain the participants’ trust. There’s a name for this. It’s called “grooming.”

“The psychological grooming of progressiveness in tasks is relevant, and educational efforts by schools, community leaders, perhaps law enforcement or at-risk youth organizations, can help by providing awareness to these games,” says Bahar, who suggests that parents comfortable with religion make an attempt to reconnect with the child through the family dynamic and values of religion and faith. “Suicide and death tend to lead people in the direction of faith, spirituality, and religion. Perhaps families can strengthen their connection to their family faith more consistently to keep outside guidance in check.”

Oleg went looking for the Blue Whale Challenge and found a curator after several days had elapsed. He found he was completely sucked into the challenge and was told he was a better performer than most and was therefore ready to do the final task earlier than others. Oleg was told to jump off a 20-story Moscow building.

Blue Whale Challenge: Final Task

The young man had been without sleep for several days and he was ready to go ahead and finish the challenge. The 20-year-old said, “I didn’t feel like I needed to kill myself. I felt I needed to complete the task. I only had this thought in my head—that I need to complete the task.”

In other words, Oleg wasn’t thinking of the final task as suicide, but as a task he must complete. His curator had been all too successful in grooming the youth. Oleg was well-nigh brainwashed.

Lucky for this young man, his parents found his train ticket to Moscow and managed to get Oleg to tell them what was going on. They stopped the boy from carrying out that final Blue Whale Challenge task.

blue whale

“There is a war, it appears, with the Internet and how it can be used for both helpful purposes and harmful purposes: this is an example of it being harmful. Remember the “trickery” of the harmful—how grooming appears innocent on the outside, but something always feels off on the inside,” says Bahar.

Not everyone is as lucky as Oleg and his parents. Diana Pestov fell off a roof and died. Some weeks later, her parents discovered the girl and several of her friends were in an online “group of death.” Attempting to make their daughter’s death have some purpose, her parents formed a group of volunteers to monitor online conversations and groups and alert police to teens who may be in trouble.

How great a danger is the Blue Whale Challenge? It’s difficult to know or verify. In Russia, there were 720 teen suicides in 2016, up from 461 a year earlier. No one can say whether the surge is due to the Blue Whale Challenge or to other factors, such as alcohol use or depression. But it sure is worrisome.

In the States, teen suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers, with only accidents coming in ahead. The last thing America needs is a deadly, secret internet game that culminates in teen suicide. But do we believe it’s real, and happening here?

“It’s a real thing. I lost my sister to it or at least part of it. I would say by the looks of everything we found it’s a major part of it,” says the brother of the girl who died in Atlanta. “And there needs to be awareness, people need to know, parents need to know, to look for signs, to monitor their kids a little better. And try to know and understand who they’re talking to and when.”