Kate Spade and the Troubling Rise in Female Suicides

Data indicates that women are committing suicide at increasingly higher rates. But experts are still struggling to understand why.

Mark Sagliocco/Getty

On Tuesday morning, news of fashion designer Kate Spade’s suicide shocked the fashion world—and her many admirers around the world.

But while details of her death and the important legacy she left behind have been covered thoroughly by the press, one demographic detail has remained largely quiet: That she is among a growing number of women to commit suicide.

According to Julie Phillips, a sociologist at Rutgers University, the spike in the suicide rate among women can be traced back to about 2000. The rate is highest today for women aged 45 to 64 who lack a college degree, which might be the result of weakened social interactions among Baby Boomers, experts say.

Karen Swartz is the clinical director of the John Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, where she researches people who are working through depression and bipolar disorder and helps train teachers at high schools, who often reach out to her in the aftermath of a tragic high school suicide.

She, too, has seen a noticeable uptick in the past decade of suicide among women. While both men and women have seen increases in suicide, the most recent report on suicide rates in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control indicated that female suicide rates have spiked. “Suicide rates for females were highest for those aged 45–64 in both 1999 (6.0 per 100,000) and 2014 (9.8). This age group also had the second-largest percent increase (63%) since 1999,” the report says.

When it comes to jobs, the data is not as clear-cut, but there is some indication that women in certain occupations are more at risk of committing suicide than others, particularly dentists, laborers, doctors—and artists, like Spade. Phillips cited a 2012 study from the CDC that found that artists were about 2.12 times more likely to die from suicide than others. Swartz agreed that research seemed to suggest artists have a higher rate of mood disorders compared to others, but cautioned against the “tortured genius” stereotype, saying that “the link to suicide is most likely from the high rate of mood disorders rather than an independent association.”

Swartz has noticed in her research that one reason women have gained on their male counterparts in committing suicide is because of the easy access to information via the internet. Female suicide rates were likely lower before because women often only had access to pills as a means of attempting suicide—but, with the exception of females in the medical field who are trained in this area, women rarely die from those overdoses.

However, Google changed that, making it simple to search for more fatal methods. “While the death rate for men is higher, the internet is one contributing factor for why women are using more fatal means,” Swartz noted.

That’s not to say that the internet has been a villain in the fight to quell suicide’s worrisome upward trend. “Good things happen too,” Swartz stressed, recalling how patients have recounted to her how searching for information about suicide led to ads and organizations that ultimately re-routed them to helplines. “That's fantastic.”

The root cause of suicide seems to overwhelmingly be related to mental illness. “The vast majority of those who die from suicide have some kind of psychiatric illness,” Swartz told The Daily Beast. “It's most often a mood disorder. Some are getting treatment, but if [the treatment] is not effective; others aren't getting treatment.”

That patients are either not getting treatment or getting the wrong treatment is certainly a big contributor to the suicide rate, particularly considering the stigma around depression and mental health. According to an email from her sister to a local newspaper, Spade was set to get treatment at one point but “chickened out,” struggling with the fact that the public’s perception of her might suffer if people found out about her debilitating depression:

In the end, the ‘image’ of her brand (happy-go-lucky Kate Spade) was more important for her to keep up. She was definitely worried about what people would say if they found out.

Reta Saffo

That confluence of factors can lead to what Swartz called “a tragic outcome.” In the aftermath of many suicides, Swartz describes evaluations that are structured as “psychological autopsies,” which often posthumously indicate the victim might have suffered from some form of mental illness.

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Spade’s suicide is indicative of the hopelessness that can consume an individual fighting depression and the societal stigma against it. That feeling can cause sufferers to believe that antidepressants, therapy, or other interventions simple won't help. “The illness itself attacks your self confidence,” Swartz said. “It [depression] is a potentially treatable mental illness. It is a treatable medical problem. But if you have an illness that makes you feel like a screw-up, it doesn't help you in getting long-term help.”

What also hasn’t helped combat suicide is the ease by which individuals can access news reports that often glamorize the act and offer graphic, titillating details about the nature of the suicide, exactly how it was performed, and (often rampant) speculation about what led to the person’s death.

That Spade occupied such an integral part of the fashion industry and women’s lives means that her death must be handled carefully—particularly because of the contagion effect that can occur. In the year immediately after Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, for example, relentless, tawdry national coverage of Monroe's death led to a 12 percent jump in suicides the year after, according to The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. That contagion is especially strong because media has a “triggering” effect for vulnerable populations.

“People might think, ‘Well, gosh, that very successful woman who had a lot of things going for her and was a celebrity did it, this is a sign I should do this too,’” Swartz said. “The contagion effect is a very real phenomenon, and one of the big issues for the contagion effect is reporting on suicide without it being in the context of mental illness, by glorifying or romanticizing it.”

Suicide contagion is something psychologists have been especially worried about in the age of social media. In 2014, after Robin Williams' suicide, Columbia University professor and suicide contagion expert Madelyn Gould told The New York Times that “suicide contagion is real, which is why I'm concerned about it,” pointing to it as a potential impetus for suicide copycats.

It’s a tragic irony that such was perhaps the case in Spade’s own suicide. Spade’s sister told her local Kansas City newspaper that Spade got especially enraptured after Williams’ death, going into a deep, dark rabbit hole that ultimately led her to her suicide. While we might never know exactly how much Spade got caught up in Williams’ suicide and to what extent it influenced her own tragic decision, it's important to note that suicide contagion exists and is powerfully destructive.

“The point of the story is less about suicide increasing in women but more about being aware,” Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, the director of the Columbia Lighthouse Project at Columbia University, said. That awareness, Posner Gerstenhaber added, should focus heavily on the fact that suicide is preventable, and that depression is the dominant condition that those who commit suicide or think about it suffer from.

“We know depression is the number one cause of disability in the world,” Posner Gerstenhaber said. “The biggest cause of suicide is a genetic illness. And yet we don’t think about it as we might think about cancer. You would never attach the word ‘choice’ when it comes to cancer”—and many people still will associate suicide as a choice.”

In the wake of Spade’s suicide, people will try to find a cause, a reasonable explanation as to why a successful fashion designer with a family would have ended her life so violently and suddenly. That is the wrong thing to do here, every expert warned. What should be done instead is to understand how that tragedy can be prevented in the future, and realize that depression is a treatable medical condition.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).