By Mara Grunau, Executive Director, Centre for Suicide Prevention
I love my Kate Spade purse. The cheery purple splash-of-colour draws attention from random people wherever I go … when I’m picking my kids up at school, shopping at the grocery store, or walking downtown at lunch. It puts a smile on my face and on the faces of others. It’s amazing how such a simple thing, the colour of a handbag, can brighten our day.
How then does it come to pass that the designer of such an objet d’art dies by suicide? How is it that she was not as cheery through-and-through as her designs suggest? Why are we shocked by this dissonance and why, as has been suggested by some, was she so committed to upholding this cheery image that she resisted seeking the help she needed at any cost?
Kate Spade the brand embodies life and whimsy and according to social media, Kate Spade the person embodied these traits too. But no one is vivacious all the time. Some of us have moods that cycle to lower points than others, but we all go through less than pleasant days. Today, anxiety and depression are widespread. 1 in 4 Canadians suffer from Anxiety Disorder in their lifetimes and as many as 3% of all Canadians are diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder annually. While most people who die by suicide also have depression, most people with depression never think about suicide.
Further, men die by suicide 3 times more often than women. This leaves Kate in a small group. When citing reasons for male suicide, reluctance to seek help features prominently and this is the crux of the suicide prevention message: we must be ready, willing and able to offer help when needed and create an environment that promotes help-seeking by people in crisis themselves.
Back in the 90s, suicide researcher Sylvia Canetto coined the phrase “Gender Paradox” to describe the polarizing numbers of male-to-female suicides (3:1). In addition to explaining this phenomenon, she noted that researchers either ignored the issue of gender and suicide or criticized women’s “feminine traits” (for example, viewing help-seeking or non-fatal suicide attempts as signs of weakness) instead of seeing women’s lower rates of suicide as evidence of strength in the face of adversity.
Reaching out takes great strength. In our determination to be equal with men, are women taking on not just the positive aspects of “traditional” masculinity, in this case, entrepreneurialism and honed business acumen, but also the negatives, an infallible persona, the commitment to autonomy-at-all-costs, the unwillingness to seek help? Are the new roles in which women are finding themselves undermining our willingness to be vulnerable: are we buying in to the fallacy that help-seeking is a sign of weakness?
Instead of chiding women for personifying help-seeking, let us celebrate it. Together, let us create a community where help-seeking is encouraged and where we boldly offer it, to both men and women. While we work diligently to close the gender gap on boards and commissions and in CEO offices, let us work equally hard at being honest with each other and with ourselves. When we are struggling, let’s not journey alone. Together we can prevent suicide.
Mara Grunau (right) with her blue (not purple!) Kate Spade bag and CSP’s Robert Olson.