The world lost two good friends just days apart, at least that’s how it felt. They were two individuals who impacted our culture and changed the way we dressed, entertained and ate. After so many years in the public eye, they seemed like our friends, people we felt we knew.

On the surface, Kate Spade, a glamorous mom at 55, seemed like she had it all: the fashion designer was beautiful, stylish, and had built a global brand that was synonymous with high-fashion for women around the world. She lived with her husband and daughter in an exclusive building in New York and was known for her philanthropic work. With “Kate Spade” stamped on desirable handbags, dishes, clothes and other items, Ms. Spade seemed the epitome of having arrived, and balancing work, life and style seemingly effortlessly.

Except, of course, her beguiling image told us very little about what Ms. Spade was actually feeling. She had struggled with depression for years and in recent weeks she had suffered extreme pain. Apparently the couple was planning to divorce. Sometime on the night of Monday, June 4 or Tuesday, June 5, Ms. Spade hanged herself in her Park Avenue apartment. She was all alone and was found when her housekeeper arrived for work in the morning.

Just three days later, another cultural icon, the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, also succumbed to intense depression and suicide. The 61 year old had made his mark with wildly successful cookbooks and, for the past five years, with his popular show “Parts Unknown” on CNN. Mr. Bourdain’s enchanting recipes, combining exotic tastes and preparation methods with American ingredients and sensibilities, helped bring new dishes and meals to a wider audience. The vibrant, adventurous and fearless chef was loved by many.

The son of a Jewish mother, Mr. Bourdain was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, and struggled with substance abuse as a young man. His two marriages fell apart and Bourdain blamed his hectic travel schedule in part for his inability to maintain a relationship. He also suffered from depression. In one memorable 2016 TV episode, Mr. Bourdain told a psychotherapist in Argentina that even seemingly minor setbacks could set him on a “spiral of depression that can last for days”.

We all know on an intellectual level that we cannot judge people by appearances, that a rich and famous fashion designer can be profoundly depressed and that an adventurous globetrotter and chef can see no point in living. Yet the suicides of two famous and well-liked individuals give us pause and reminds us just how little we know of other people’s pain and challenges.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish sage Hillel warned: “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” We have to approach others with sensitivity and care, never assuming we know what they are feeling. Too often, the face we put on in public masks what we’re truly feeling, preventing us from connecting with others and sometimes stopping us from recognizing or helping to alleviate another’s pain.

On June 7, 2018, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention released startling new statistics showing that suicide is a growing public health crisis. Between 1999 and 2016, suicide rates in the US increased in every state except one, and rose across age, gender, race and ethnicities. Nearly 45,000 people took their own lives in the US in 2016, twice the number of homicides. Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US; among young people ages 15 to 34, it is the second-leading cause of death.

Although researchers estimate that 90% of victims of suicide suffer from an underlying mental health condition, over half of Americans who commit suicide are not in treatment for mental health issues. This gap makes it more crucial than ever to try and connect with others who might be in pain and help steer people towards mental health resources.

Some Jewish organizations are helping lead the way to de-stigmatize mental health problems and aid people in receiving the support they need. “No Shame on U” was founded by Miriam Ament, who decided to go public with her history of severe depression. Recalling that a friend once told her she didn’t want to talk with Miriam until she was “happy” again, Miriam Ament has dedicated her life to telling her story and breaking down stigmas about talking about mental illness.

Refuat Hanefesh (“Healing of the Soul” in Hebrew) provides resources and information in the Jewish community, spreading the word that mental illness affects over 20% of the population, and working to get help to those who need it. “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation, about illnesses that affect not only individuals but their families as well,” explains actress Glenn Close, who has worked with the organization to raise awareness.

These and other resources can help us do our part in connecting with and supporting those in our midst who are experiencing pain and sickness, but we also must all do our part. The recent deaths of celebrities who battling depression reminds us all to try and look beneath the surface, to ask how people are feeling and to really listen to their response. We all have a responsibility to get to know how those around us are feeling, to experience their concerns and pain alongside them, and when necessary to work to help connect others with the mental health resources they need.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA)

No Shame on U:

Refuat Hanefesh: