Content warning: This article deals with suicide and may be triggering for some readers.
Two celebrity deaths have made international headlines in the last week; American fashion designer, Kate Spade died by suicide on June 5, 2018. Three days later, celebrity chef and food writer, Anthony Bourdain, also died by suicide.
The deaths of these icons have shocked the world, and saturated the media.
Most parents of tweens and teens would know it’s been almost impossible to shield them from learning about these deaths. The way the deaths have been highlighted in the media, the kids might not have known the celebrities beforehand, but they certainly do now.
After learning about Spade earlier in the week, my 11-year-old announced whilst watching the news about Bourdain, “Mum, another celebrity killed himself.”
And then he asked why.
I’ve never sugar-coated things for my son; being evasive with him doesn’t come naturally to me. But for once, I wasn’t sure what to say to him. He knows what suicide and depression is – we’ve talked about it. But how do I explain it to him in the context of overwhelming media attention for hugely popular A-listers?
There’s the standard: yes, he was very unwell for a long time and tried to get better, but couldn’t. Avoidance any language that validates suicide as a legitimate option to solve problems – and balancing that with teaching empathy for people who suffer from severe depression. Explaining that those who take their own lives are seriously unwell, and it is not their fault they have this terrible disease.
But undoubtedly, celebrity complicates things.
I found that for my tween, these suicides were more confusing because they happened to seemingly successful people – big identities with hugely successful careers, and everything going for them.
Popularity. Money. Children who love them.
Another complication is this: because of Spade’s and Bourdain’s shiny public personas, and the international outpouring of grief in response to their deaths, there is a real risk that young minds can interpret the suicide of celebrities as almost ‘glamorous’ – an act that will attract positive attention.
So as parents, what can we say to the very impressionable tweens who are somewhere between childhood and adolescence? The ones who know Robin Williams as Peter Pan in Hook, and incidentally learnt on YouTube that he died by suicide?
Do we work extra hard to shield them from world events, and shut down all discussion?
But then…does the absence of open discussion turn impressionable minds into vulnerable minds?
Leading authorities in Australian mental health absolutely believe so. Both Beyond Blue and Headspace say that talking about suicide in an open and caring manner can increase hope, reduce a child’s feelings of isolation, and protect them from following through with suicide.
In the context of celebrity suicide, Carly Crawford from Beyond Blue recommends the media release about celebrity and suicide, called ‘Celebrity and wealth are no defence against suicide risk.’ The new page dated 9th June 2018 makes it clear that mental health challenges and depression doesn’t discriminate:
“It is difficult to understand why a person who appears to have it all takes their own life. But international recognition, excellence in your chosen career, respect from your peers and public admiration are no defence when it comes to developing a mental health condition.”
Acknowledging that can assist an older child to understand how and why people, who apparently have all of society’s markers of success, die by suicide.
It’s also vitally important to use positive examples of people who have raised awareness about their own mental health condition in a constructive manner, and have openly talked about how they effectively participated in mental health treatment.
For example, James Packer, Chrissy Teigen, J.K. Rowling, Prince Harry, Beyonce, Adele, Ryan Reynolds, Ellen De Generes and Dwayne Johnson have all spoken openly about facing difficult times – and surviving. Using these inspirational examples puts the focus on strength and overcoming mental health challenges, whilst maintaining a conversation about it.
Limiting exposure is also key. At a time when there are two tragic events in close proximity as there have been this week, parents must be extra vigilant in monitoring what their kids are seeing and reading. It’s important to allow curious minds to have the facts, but not the ‘excitement’ of the ensuing media storm.
“Keep it to accurate and factual information. Don’t use too much emotion and don’t fuel gossip. It’s natural teens will ask why someone suicided, but don’t simplify it. If you don’t know, you don’t know,” Kristen Douglas, the National Manager of HeadSpace School Support, told Mamamia.
News of suicide is always shocking, but parents should resist the temptation to editorialise or speculate – meaning that we sometimes need to admit we don’t have all the answers. Otherwise, we risk alienating a child when they need to come to us with a problem.
“If a young person is sitting there listening to people talk in a degrading and judgemental way about a person who’s suicided, it creates a stigma around mental health,” Douglas said. “The person listening will become less likely to seek help if they too are having suicidal thoughts.”
Which of course is the absolute last thing any parent wants.
If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local Headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.