The first celebrity death by suicide that I can remember being conscious of was George Reeves. I knew him from the syndicated reruns of the 1950s Adventures of Superman television series, which would occasionally run on the local TV station in the late 70s and early 80s. As a superhero-obsessed kid, I devoured anything I could read about not only the heroes themselves, but the history of their creation, the artists who drew them, the movies that had been made about them. In a pre-internet world, this meant lots of trips to the library, getting books from interlibrary loan, and scouring the yellow pages of nearby Lexington, Kentucky to see if there was a REAL LIVE comic book shop nearby (there was!).
In a promotional book celebrating Superman, there were profiles of all of the actors who’d played the Kryptonian, and George Reeve’s bio ended in words that were chilling, especially to the ears of a superhero-obsessed elementary school kid:
George Reeves was typecast as Superman and couldn’t build the career as a leading man he wanted. Distraught, he committed suicide at the age of 45.
While I would, as an adult, learn of the persistent scandalous conspiracy theories that surround Reeves’ death, what has stuck with me over the years is the bluntness of the end of Reeves’ biography, and the way pop culture tells the story of his death:
He died because he couldn’t be Superman anymore. And He couldn’t be anything else, either.
It’s a brief snapshot of how we often frame suicide, right? As a culture, as people talking about the world over coffee, as furiously typing blogger:
He couldn’t be strong anymore. He didn’t have any hope.
It would be years before I would understand death by suicide in any other way.
I woke up this morning to a headline about the death of Anthony Bourdain, whose television shows I always liked, and I’ve been soaking in the news of Kate Spade’s death over the last few days. Though I like to think I have a better-than-typical understanding of mental health, I’m not a mental health professional (though my wife is, and gives me great advice and coaching on best practices), and so I find myself playing some emotional ping-pong whenever a celebrity death of this sort makes the news. I know it’s complicated, and not just about mental health, and I find myself having to work hard to get past my own gut-reaction.
My sadness intertwines with my own incredulity.
Which intertwines with a sense of justice mixed up with grief.
Which may just be magical thinking.
I want to understand struggle that is not mine, but the temptation to say “but this person had it all” is often too great for me to resist.
And then I just wish they could keep on playing Superman. For me. For their families. For themselves.
Just like I did when I first read about George Reeves.
There is obviously a power that comes with celebrity. The ability to make people show up for a movie or sell tickets to a concert, or shine a spotlight on their favorite cause.
But there’s a different sort of power that comes when a celebrity shows her human side, or when his vulnerability is revealed. Kate Spade’s death has already initiated a conversation this week about Mental Illness. Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s death amplified the already growing awareness of the national opioid crisis.
These glimpses behind the curtain are often difficult, not only because they show the blemishes and imperfections of our idols–the ways our heroes can no longer play Superman–but because they serve as mirrors. We see their human-ness, and it reminds us of how human we are. We see our own vulnerabilities up close.
It hurts to do that. And it’s scary. So it can be so easy to hide behind our own defenses, describing death by suicide as selfish or weak.
But that hasn’t helped the people we love any more than it has helped the celebrities whose deaths we wake up to. It’s just helped feed an unhealthy stigma that should give us all pause. The tricks our brains play on us are not selfishness, but often times, a symptom of an illness itself. As writer Jen Simon recently reflected:
Depression lies. It tricks you into believing that your death wouldn’t devastate your loved ones but liberate them. It doesn’t feel like you’re abandoning them; it feels like you’re freeing them from the burden that is you and your illness. You feel like you are doing the world a service by leaving it.
Suicide becomes a misguided act of selflessness, the furthest possible motivation from selfishness.
A recent New York Times article reported that the CDC research shows that suicide rates increased 25 percent nationally over the last decade, reminding us that this is a health issue that impacts all of us–whether in our family, among our friends, or even deeply personally. According to the article:
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and one of three that is increasing. The other two are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdose, in part because of the spike in opioid deaths, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the C.D.C.
The article is also clear that there isn’t a single reason, but there are many factors:
Social isolation, lack of mental health treatment, drug and alcohol abuse and gun ownership are among the factors that contribute to suicide.
Suicide isn’t only about mental illness, which is one of the things that has made prevention difficult. Playing critical roles are impulsive decision-making in seasons of despair or crisis, access to lethal means (firearms are the most used method for suicide with a rate of 48.5%; for those without known mental health conditions, the rate is even higher at 55.3% ). The CDC report offers a variety of other insights into these statistics, and includes recommendations, not only for health professionals, government and other sectors, but for you and me. All of us can:
- Ask someone you are worried about if they’re thinking about suicide.
- Keep them safe. Reduce access to lethal means for those at risk.
- Be there with them. Listen to what they need.
- Help them connect with ongoing support like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255/1-888-628-9454 Espanol/1-800-799-4889 Hearing Impaired/741741 Crisis Text Line).
- Follow up to see how they’re doing.
As a faith leader, I find that the importance of fighting stigma is of equal importance. It’s common for people of faith to hear accusations of selfishness accompanied by claims of eternal damnation whenever suicide is mentioned. At the root of Christian faith is a deep sense that empathy is what connects us: Humanity is created in the Image of God by a God who loves the world, and humanity is called to love God with everything we’ve got. We’re also called to practice our spirituality by seeing ourselves in one another, and seeing one another in ourselves. That ancient wisdom is older and goes deeper than any claim about heaven and hell. To me, that’s what matters, and that’s the work of the church, not pontificating about the netherworld.
So take care of your people, friends. We’re everything we’ve got–one another, the communities we build. Our willingness to push through our own discomfort and misconceptions is part of what it means to love each other well.
And love with no reservations can give us strength.
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.]
Special thanks to Dr. Lisa Hale Gilvin, my In-house mental health advisor and copy editor extraordinaire, who helped me clarify some of my language and thinking in this blog post. She also makes me a better person in every other way, too. Love you, Lee.