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Group Psychotherapy Column: Civilizations Die From Suicide not by Murder 

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder” — Arnold Toynbee, Historian

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.
Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.

The summer has started with the tragic deaths by suicide of two prominent celebrities – fashion designer Kate Spade and Chef Anthony Bourdain.  While tragic, I didn’t have much of a personal reaction to the death of Kate Spade. As anyone who has seen me in person can attest, I don’t know much about the world of fashion; it has just never been an area of interest for me. However, having spent the last decade and a half in collegiate mental health, I am acutely aware of how prevalent thoughts of suicide are for many people; especially those who feel that their livelihood is dependent on crafting a carefully sanitized public image. While Ms. Spade’s death was sad and tragic, the personal impact on me was initially minimal.

While Ms. Spade’s death was sad and tragic, the personal impact on me was initially minimal.

The loss of Anthony Bourdain was different.  I had the chance to meet him a few years ago when he spoke on the campus where I was working at the time.  While our conversation was brief and overall insignificant, it has always been a cherished memory. For years, I have admired and respected Mr. Bourdain for who he was – a cantankerous, but insightful, man who did not apologize for the many years of self-destructive behavior in his youth and who passionately believed in equality and social justice. In many ways, Mr. Bourdain represented who I wanted to be – a person who could utilize their self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviors of the past to advocate and shape a better existence in both the present and the future; a man who recognized his own flaws, but did not let that silence him from trying to make the world a better place.

Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me hard.  My mind flashed back to that fleeting conversation I had with him; not the content of the conversation (which has long ago been lost to memory), but rather to the vibrancy and enthusiasm of the person I admired.  I thought, with great sadness, about the people who were closest to Mr. Bourdain and the profound sense of loss they were experiencing.  I thought of the multiple times, both personally and professionally, when I have been confronted with the immediate aftermath of a completed suicide. There is a profound sense of shock and incongruence of those scenes – the dichotomy that one life has suddenly, and violently, ended while thousands of others continue uninterrupted and unaware of the tragedy that has occurred next to them.

I also thought about the work that we do as mental health professionals; where our “Prime Directive” is to keep people alive and safe. It’s a world that is actively avoided by many people.  Our jobs requires a certain type of empathy for pain and struggle that many find too overwhelming. We often work with clients who are teetering on the line between life and death. It’s a scary place for one to find themselves; both for the client and the clinician.  Yet, as mental health professionals, we have a sacred obligation to help shepherd even the most hopeless and despondent of souls towards finding their meaning and purpose once again. For many clinicians, this is both the most stressful and anxiety-inducing part of our jobs, but also the most rewarding.  There is no greater honor than being able to assist someone in finding their way out of the darkest place of their life.   There is no amount of monetary compensation or praise from others that can beat the feeling of knowing that we were in the right place, at the right time, and with the right set of skills to prevent an unneeded death.

At the risk of being biased, the work we do as mental health professionals is some of the noblest in the world. We engage in our trade to try and prevent tragedy whenever there is a risk. We are on the front lines of the fight many people have between life and death. High-profile suicides tend to remind us of the true stakes of our work. From one colleague to another, I offer my deepest and sincerest THANK YOU for all that you do to help those in despair.  What we do is meaningful and profound, even though it is rarely glorious.  Sometimes it is important to hear that sentiment out loud.