UH Psychologists Respond to Suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade

Wealth, fame and status are not shields against mental illness, research indicates

Dr. Rodica Damian
Rodica Damian

The nation was in mourning last week as it lost two beloved cultural icons to suicide. Clothing designer Kate Spade grew a small handbag company into a women’s fashion behemoth, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain brought a hard-boiled, unconventional approach to culinary writing and television travelogues. Their deaths reignited a national conversation on suicide and mental health, with many expressing shock that two wealthy, successful public figures with fans around the world would choose to take their own lives. But research suggests psychological wellness can’t be attained through a robust bank account or a widespread following on social media.

"One reason why even highly successful people might end up committing suicide is that fame puts a lot of pressure on people, thus increasing their likelihood to develop mental illness,” said University of Houston psychology professor Rodica Damian, whose research considers the effects of life experiences and status attainment and mental health. “’Having it all’ does not come without a cost; the cost is that one is in the public eye, judged by peers, constantly having to upstage and reinvent oneself.”

Dr. Rheeda Walker
Rheeda L. Walker

“No one is immune to suicide,” said UH Professor Rheeda L.Walker, a clinical psychologist who studies psychological correlates of suicide. “While one may seem to have everything, it is the internal struggle and perceived hopelessness that matter most.”

Suicide is often framed as an issue that particularly affects teens and young adults, but the deaths of Spade, 55, and Bourdain, 61, have highlighted the fact that mental illness can affect individuals of any age. “Suicide deaths rates actually increase with age for Caucasian/European Americans,” said Professor Walker. Bourdain and Spade’s creative successes may have also contributed to their psychological hardships. According to Professor Damian, “Biographical data suggests that many writers experience so-called ‘writers' block’ after receiving a Nobel Prize…and many report that it is due to the pressure they experience, and the fear that their next work will be deemed as lower in quality than their previous work.”

Will the many discussions surrounding Spade and Bourdain’s suicides translate to long-term changes in mental-health awareness? According to Professor Walker,“Awareness increases in the short term, but not necessarily in the long term. The recent high-profile deaths, however, have brought attention to the reality that the suicide death rate has been increasing for several years. Perhaps there will be more funding to support research and prevention efforts, but what's been more likely in recent years is the defunding of mental-health research and related efforts.”