By Randon Aea
The deaths of American designer Kate Spade and celebrity gourmand Anthony Bourdain draw attention to suicide as a growing U.S. health issue. At the same time, they open uncomfortable and hard-to-answer questions. Not least is reconciling the dissonance of such finality from two people who appeared to “have it all.” Bourdain and Spade remind us how hard it is to truly know another person’s pain and the tremendous pressure of maintaining appearances.
Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report indicating suicide is on the rise nationwide, up nearly 30 percent since 1999. While most of the participants were white, results held true across all racial and ethnic groups, for both men and women, in rural and urban areas, and across all ages.
Suicide is currently the leading cause of death in King County. Suicide is a public health crisis.
While mental illness may have played a role for Spade and Bourdain, the CDC’s researchers found that more than half of Americans who died by suicide had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition. More common events — substance abuse, job or financial stress, physical health problems, and relationship problems — were found to increase the risk.
These are not exactly mundane problems, but they are ones that most of us have faced at one time or another. Life itself, with its inevitable ups and downs, is the culprit.
Do a Google search for recent data on suicide rates among Asian Americans — you won’t find any. This could be part of a general institutional marginalization of people of color or skewed aggregated data of Asian and Pacific Islanders, but I also blame a self-imposed silence fortified by shame and stigma.
And while there is no one solution, one thing is clear. We should be taking care of our mental health with the same consistency that we maintain our physical health. That means, before we’re in crisis. Similar to screening for chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes, good mental health requires preventative care and maintenance. This becomes particularly difficult for the Asian Pacific Islander community, who face mental health stigmas (like everyone else), along with cultural and linguistic barriers that impact their success in addressing their health concerns.
The biggest favor we can do for our community is to continue to destigmatize mental illness and have more conversations about mental health. We would not shame someone for having asthma or high blood pressure, or catching a cold. Mental illness is not a choice, it’s a medical condition. Suicidal thoughts don’t stem from a moral failing or personal weakness. They are a sign that someone needs help. Bringing the topic into the open is necessary if we want people to access information and treatment.
When we encourage people to view their mental health holistically, as part of their overall wellbeing, we give them permission to connect with others and to have honest conversations that could be lifesaving. We also increase the chance a person might seek help or obtain relief from a situation that could be contributing to suicidal thoughts — joblessness, homelessness, a bad breakup, or drug problem.
We need to focus on one another as part of a supportive community and reserve our judgments. We need to give permission to be more connected to one other, and check in more frequently, regardless of whether someone seems sad or ready to harm themselves. People who are isolated don’t reach out. We don’t know they are in pain. Connecting with people means creating opportunities to talk, face-to-face. It means being willing to listen.
We need to focus on one another as part of a supportive community and reserve our judgments. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t fear being a burden. Take the time to be present. Sit someone down today and ask, “How are you?”
Don’t wait until the next celebrity tragedy. It could make all the difference.
Randon Aea is the behavioral health services manager at International Community Health Services (ICHS), a nonprofit community health center with clinics in Seattle, Bellevue, and Shoreline.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the Crisis Clinic’s 24-hour crisis line at 866-4-CRISIS (866-427-4747), Teen Link at 866-833-6546 in the evenings from 6-10 p.m. (PST), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.