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What to Know About That Published Email From Kate Spade's Sister

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When news broke that well-known designer Kate Spade died by suicide on Tuesday, it was yet another reminder that success and money don’t lessen the mental pain that can lead to suicide. Although many were shocked by the news, considering Spade’s success and the happy-go-lucky brand that holds her namesake, knowing someone’s public persona isn’t the same as knowing them intimately. According to Spade’s sister, she had been struggling with her mental health for a while.

In an email shared with The Kansas City Star, Spade’s older sister, Reta Saffo, said that for her, Spade’s death “was not unexpected.”

I will say this was not unexpected by me. I’d flown out to Napa and NYC several times in the past 3-4 years to help her to get the treatment she needed (inpatient hospitalization). She was always a very excitable little girl and I felt all the stress/pressure of her brand (KS) may have flipped the switch where she eventually became full-on manic depressive

Saffo recalled many attempts to get Spade into treatment, getting to the point of helping her pack her bags. In the end, though, Spade would always refuse.

“I’d come so VERY close to getting her to go in for treatment,” Saffo said. “But — 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.”

One comment from Saffo has encountered some backlash — not necessarily for its content, but because The Kansas City Star printed it unchallenged, and so soon after her sister’s death. She said, “After numerous attempts, I finally let go. Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves!”

Saffo’s comments, raw, and so soon after her sister’s death, highlight a tricky space many suicide loss survivors have to navigate. Without context, her words seem to imply that there’s only so much you can do for people. That, ultimately, people who are suicidal need to save themselves. That hope has an expiration date.

Of course, as people who want to prevent suicide, this is contrary to the messages we send. We say again and again that there is hope. That no one is ever beyond help, and that suicide is never your only option.

At the same time, though, we tell suicide loss survivors their loved one’s death is not their fault. That there’s nothing they could have done. That there’s no need to hang on to guilt.

From a suicide loss survivor’s perspective, it can be painful to hear suicide is preventable. From a suicidal person’s perspective, it can be painful to hear “there was nothing we could do.” In publishing Saffo’s comments unchallenged, The Kansas City Star chose one narrative over another — giving Spade’s sister’s grief a platform, while neglecting to explore what the comment, “Sometimes you simply cannot SAVE people from themselves,” means to both loss survivors and people struggling themselves.

It’s naive to pretend it’s not harder to get someone help who doesn’t want it themselves. In this way, “you cannot save people from themselves” isn’t untrue. While some suicides come as a shock, others come after years of not finding the right kind of help. Sometimes, people die from suicide despite receiving support and despite being open about their struggles. In these cases, it can be harder to feel there’s something more a loved one could have done.

It can be hard to spread hopeful messages about suicide when a person you loved didn’t live through it.

Mighty contributor Ellen Behm wrote about how painful it can be to hear “suicide is preventable” as someone who lost her father to suicide. 

This sentiment can be hard to swallow if you tried to intervene and still a suicide happens. A survivor of suicide loss already feels so much guilt. Are we piling on more, implying they should have/could have done more? A survivor does feel an inordinate amount of guilt, and it is possible this will make things worse for them. For me, after therapy, support groups and the passage of time, I have been able to resolve my feelings of guilt.

Chelsey Anthony, a Mighty contributor who lost her brother to suicide, said she empathizes with Saffo’s comments. In her experience, feeling like you can’t save someone from themselves is a common first reaction, but doesn’t necessarily alleviate the guilt suicide loss survivors can feel.

To me her sister’s statement shows that she herself may have some overwhelming guilt that she tried to help her, but could not save her from herself. I think this is a very common initial reaction, and I too felt this immediately following my brother’s death. I have learned through therapy, time, and speaking with other survivors that this is completely normal.

That’s why, especially in the immediate aftermath of a loss, it is not a suicide loss survivor’s job to offer hope for those who are struggling. It’s up to those on the outside who help tell these stories, journalists and advocates, to provide respectful coverage that honors suicide loss survivors — while also keeping those currently struggling in mind. The Kansas City Star did not handle Saffo’s grief with care and neglected to follow reporting on suicide guidelines, which suggests safe reporting includes information and advice that promotes help-seeking.

In our reporting after suicide loss, we need to focus on the real culprits — like the stigma that seemed to have prevented Spade from seeking help, or, more commonly, the lack of accessible mental health support. We can honor loss survivor’s experiences while still spreading hope. Because while it is hard to “save people from themselves,” it’s not impossible.

Screenshot via The Kansas City Star

Originally published: June 6, 2018
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