Kate Spade - 1962-2018

Famed fashion designer Kate Spade’s suicide sparked an outpouring of shocked, despairing posts on social media. Here was a 55-year-old woman who seemed to have it all—wealth, public acclaim, a husband and business partner, Andy Spade and their 13-year-old daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade. Yet she hanged herself in the bedroom of their Manhattan apartment. In her suicide note, the creator of the eponymous Kate Spade bag allegedly beseeched Frances not to feel responsible.

A few minutes after the death went public, a good friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page:  “Another lesson in being envious. I’m always envious of lives like these, thinking what I would do if I had that combination of time (Kate sold the company in 2007; in 2016 launching a new accessories line called Frances Valentine) and money to spare.”

Although the tragedy seems shocking, it is more a reminder of how emotionally fragile human beings are, and that spectacular achievement and strong family ties are not guarantees of a charmed, happy life.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. On average there are 123 suicides a day, with a 2016 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding that the suicide rate increased by 60% for white women in the period from 1998 to 2014.

Already, much ‘insider’ gossip has surfaced including rumors of marital discord and presuming intimate knowledge about the state of Kate Spade’s psyche in those last hours. Kate’s older sister Reta Brosnahan Saffo emailed a reporter from her hometown newspaper The Kansas City Star that the designer suffered from bipolar disorder but was reluctant to seek help for fear of how “hospitalization might harm the image of the happy-go-lucky Kate Spade brand.” Other family members have disputed this account, saying the sisters were long estranged and that Kate was in treatment for anxiety and depression. On June 7, 2018, the day following the suicide, the New York Times published a statement from Andy SpadeRegardless, the only person with the answers to why she committed this act is no longer here to offer testimony.

The Stigma of Mental Illness: Why It’s so Hard to Overcome

The stigma surrounding mental illness remains all too real. When someone is physically ill, others rally around offering concrete help, such as a drive to and from chemo treatments and/or a home-cooked meal. Displaying signs of severe emotional issues often leads to grumblings like, “Stop being so self-pitying and just get over yourself already!”

In her email assigning this piece my editor, who has four children ages 16 to 22 wrote, “I just cannot imagine where your head has to be to leave a child… Is it just that you’ve convinced yourself they’d be better off without you? Please help me make sense of this.”

Each year approximately 42.5 million Americans suffer from mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Unfortunately, when one is in a dark place, one is typically trapped in a miasma of hopelessness, lethargy, and distorted thoughts like, “I will never feel better. It’s over for me.”  This trifecta can lead to bad choices including isolation and substance abuse. (Kate Spade’s sister said the designer was self-medicating with alcohol.)

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Two years ago a now 28-year-old patient of mine visited her mother’s home and found the 67-year-old had asphyxiated herself. *Samantha’s parent had been depressed for years—going for therapy one time in the late ‘90s and never trying psych meds. “After retiring, mom just sat in the apartment day after day being miserable and thinking that was the only way to be. I know she didn’t want to leave my sister or me, but every day, every minute, felt like an unbearable ordeal to her.”

In their last conversation a few days before the suicide, Samantha’s mother had said how proud she was of her daughter, who richly deserved the happiness the older woman had never found. She assured her daughter she wasn’t going anywhere but no, she still didn’t want a shrink or pills. For months after the death, my patient felt guilty, wondering what she could have done to prevent the suicide.  Her sessions with me and with a Children of Suicide group have helped her realize the death wasn’t her fault.

Suicide: A Desperate Act to Stop the Pain

But just as the fashion icon’s final wish is for her daughter not to feel responsible for her mother’s actions, fulfillment of that wish involves a lot more than waving a magic wand. There is a zero percent chance the self-inflicted end to a life won’t forever impact loved ones in a devastating way. But sometimes the level of a person’s pain leaves him or her desperate to do anything to make it stop. For those who have achieved success and money and found the accolades unable to fill the inner void, there can be self-directed anger at the supposed ingratitude of feeling so unhappy when life has given so many rewards. And again, there can be a disinclination to reach out for help, partly for fear of being judged.

Joanne Harpel knows firsthand the helpless horror of witnessing a loved one who “has it all” end his life. In 1993 Joanne, who is now the president of Coping After Suicide and president and CEO of Rethink the Conversation.org watched her 26-year-old “superstar” brother Stephen—an honors graduate of Yale, Harvard Law School, married to his college sweetheart and attorney with a prestigious national law firm— suddenly show signs of bipolar disorder. He was hospitalized several times but within a year, he killed himself.

After taking a few years to work on her own healing, Joanne changed her career direction from law to suicide bereavement and what she calls ‘post-vention’ expert. She says, “You need to remember no one person can save someone.” She espouses a group effort and coming from a place of compassion: “You’re suffering. I want to help you feel better” versus “There’s something wrong with you” which can engender defensiveness. Suicide.org is a great resource for those who are suicidal or suicide survivors.

For so many women, a Kate Spade bag was aspirational; being able to afford one meant you had made it! Political strategist Tracy Russo eulogized, “Kate’s designs made women everywhere smile and feel beautiful.”

If the designer’s death can have any meaning, let it be proof positive that inside every ‘symbol of success’ exists a living, breathing, flawed and frail human being whose ‘charmed existence’ offers no insulation against suffering.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

* Patient’s name and circumstances are changed to protect privacy.

Last Updated: Sep 18, 2019