Behaviorial Health

In the Wake of Tragedy: What to Know About Suicide

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

The apparent suicide death of New York designer and icon Kate Spade shows suicide is truly an illness that can affect anyone, says a Henry Ford Health System psychiatrist.

New York City police told the New York Times Tuesday that Ms. Spade, 55, was discovered unresponsive at a Park Avenue apartment, where she had hanged herself in her bedroom. She was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:26 a.m. She left a note, but the official did not comment on what it said.

“The biggest takeaway is the fact that most of us may think somebody who’s successful or wealthy or married or with children couldn’t possibly think of suicide,” says Cathy Frank, M.D., who leads psychiatry and behavioral health services at Henry Ford Health System. “But suicide is an illness. It affects everyone: men, women, rich, poor, old, young.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), risk factors of suicide include:

  • A family history of suicide or child maltreatment
  • Previous suicide attempts
  • A history of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression, or alcohol and substance abuse
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
  • Local epidemics of suicide
  • Cultural belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Feelings of social isolation
  • Poor access to mental health treatment
  • Relational, social, work or financial loss
  • Physical illness
  • Easy access to lethal methods
  • Unwillingness to seek help due to stigma

Ms. Spade, who had been the accessories editor for Mademoiselle magazine, and her husband, Andy Spade, founded the Kate Spade handbag company in 1993, selling it to Neiman Marcus Group in 1999. She leaves behind her husband and 13-year-old daughter, according to the newspaper.

The Stigma of Suicide and Mental Illness

Dr. Frank, who has never treated Ms. Spade or has no knowledge about the circumstances about her death, says suicide in general carries a stigma that can render people helpless.

“People can feel all sorts of very intense pain that may not be evident to others,” Dr. Frank explains. “There’s such a stigma against mental illness and suicide that people are sometimes fearful of speaking up.”

Statistics show half of people who kill themselves have visited their family doctor within 30 days of their death, she added. “But because of the stigma, because people are frightened of speaking out, people often are not sharing with their physicians or with their loved ones the degree of pain they’re in or the fact that they feel suicidal.”

What to Do If You or Someone You Love Is Thinking of Suicide

One of the biggest myths surrounding suicide is the belief that talking about it or asking about it, increases the chances someone will commit suicide.

“We know talking about it usually decreases the risk,” Dr. Frank points out. “The most important thing if you’re feeling suicidal is talk to someone.”

That conversation can take place with a primary care or family doctor, a friend or loved one, a significant other or religious leader. There are also hotlines available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One potentially hopeful note is that suicidal feelings tend to come and go, she says, so if people can reach out to someone during or before a crisis, often that helps mediate the risk for that period of time.

According to the CDC, factors that work to prevent suicide include:

  • Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance abuse disorders
  • Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for those seeking help
  • Family and community support, or being connected with others
  • Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships
  • Skills in problem solving, conflict resolution and nonviolent ways of handling disputes
  • Cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common cause of injury-related death, more than the number killed in motor vehicle deaths, according to the CDC. It accounts for the loss of nearly 37,000 American lives each year. In 2011, middle-aged adults accounted for the largest proportion of suicides (56 percent), and from 1999-2010, the suicide rate among this group increased by nearly 30 percent, according to the CDC.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Dr. Cathy Frank is the Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Services at Henry Ford Health System. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Troy.