On Anthony Bourdain’s death and ending the stigma

photo by Miller Mobley/The Hollywood Reporter

If you asked me to think of one person who could bring people together, who could sit down with anyone and have a meaningful conversation, who could shut up and just listen and learn, it would have been Anthony Bourdain. His show “Parts Unknown”, brilliant in a unique kind of way, taught us so much more than where to travel or where to eat.

Tony had the gift of making us feel connected to the world, its cultures, and its people. In his show, he was able to teach us that “we’re all just humans, trying to live a meaningful and productive life”.  

His message was important, his legacy will live and he’ll be missed.

I know, I know, I am one of the gazillion people who is chiming in on the most recent suicides of two well-known people, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain; both deaths so very sad and tragic.

I mean every word I wrote up there. I feel heartbroken that Tony is gone. We need more people in this world like him, not less. However, if I am honest, I cannot claim to really mourn his death as I would the death of a loved one or someone emotionally close to me. I didn’t know him. I just knew what he stood for.

The reason I bring his death up: it’s proof once again that the demons of our minds don’t even stay away from people who seem to live glamorous lives, lives that many people aspire to. Suicide doesn’t discriminate by race, gender, or social status.

We need to start talking about mental health in a different way.

(What else is new?)

[bctt tweet=”We need to start talking about mental health in a different way. #endthestigma” username=”@san_in_ca”]

In German, we have another word for “suicide”, which is ‘Freitod’ (‘free death’). The word was coined by 19th-century German philosopher and writer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and was supposed to describe a death that was chosen “autonomously and with a clarity of mind”.

I wonder if people have pondered this definition over the last century, now that we believe to understand that people who choose to die by their own hands are often seen to have battled mental health issues. So, by that description, does that still imply “clarity of mind”? I wouldn’t think so.

On second thought, I realized: the phrase, in the German language, is also ambiguous. Maybe nowadays, we should interpret the phrase ‘Freitod’ differently. People who chose suicide often feel like they’re setting themselves (and others) free. They are finally free from pain, from constant struggles, from trying to make it through just one more day.

We tend to say ‘hang in there, it will get better’ (God knows how often I have used – and believed – this phrase), but what if it doesn’t get better? What if help doesn’t come or, worse, doesn’t seem to work? How long do people keep trying, how long do they “hang in there”, when they don’t see the light at the end of that endless tunnel?

Look, I am no expert that has personal first-hand experience with mental health struggles (and I am beyond thankful for it). I am not depressed, I am usually not an anxious person, and I generally have a glass-half-full kind of attitude. I believe that there is a solution for most problems, and I always try to find the silver-lining in any situation. 

That doesn’t mean though that I don’t excel at overthinking (I am exceptional at that, to tell you the truth!) or that I don’t tend to grapple with the usual struggles of life like anybody else. I also know it’s not the same. I don’t know from personal experience what it’s like to feel so hopeless that you don’t want to live another day.

Sadly, I do have close second-hand experiences with mental health issues. I know more people that struggle with their mental health than I prefer. (Well, I’d prefer none. Obviously.) And there are probably also a number of people who struggle and I don’t know about it because they have never shared their struggles or don’t want to burden anyone.

So sometimes, I worry.  I worry that I don’t see that someone needs any (or extra) help. I worry that I miss a sign, or Heaven forbid, I dismiss it as something else.

I’d like to think, or desperately hope, that most people’s threshold is so high that they will ask for help or seek treatment before they harm themselves, but if successful celebrities, with seemingly all the resources in the world, are not immune to being overtaken by their demons, my hunch is that it can happen to anyone.

My plea today is: let’s be more open about how we’re feeling and what’s going on with us. 

I think the most important step we have to take to prevent such occurrences is fighting the stigma that comes with mental health issues.

You know, how there is always an outcry when beloved people commit suicide (and rightly so), but an outrage when some disturbed person commits mass murder? Obviously, those are two different extremes of the spectrum, but what these people have in common is that their brains are broken.

If people are not comfortable sharing their struggles, if they’re afraid to be judged or outcast, if they’re ashamed of not being taken seriously, we’re in deep waters, friends.

As long as we offer support and understanding to people who battle cancer or other serious illnesses without hesitation, but blame people with mental health issues for their broken parts, we’re going to have a problem. Ask yourself why we think it is ok to take pills for diabetes or high blood pressure, but not ok to take a pill that fixes your brain?  If we can’t realize and accept that mental illness is an illness like any other that deserves the same support and understanding, how are we going to move forward and prevent any tragedies from happening in the future? If mental health services are not available or affordable to those who need them, how do we intend to fix this?

I admit, this post is all over the place. I have a lot of thoughts on the mental health discussion that has been going around, but I firmly believe that if we can change our language and our attitudes around the subject, we might eventually be able to get somewhere.

  1. Never in a million years did I think, I would ever need to seek out mental health services. But I finally did last month. I always was under the impression that people can just “suck it up” and “what can be so bad, it’s not like you are hurting”. Now I know what it means to hurt emotionally and to constantly feel on the edge about everything. There are a lot of things I’m processing right now and I’m glad I finally took the initiative to ask for help. Earlier last month I reached my lowest point, I had several panic attacks and was crying for no reason. I didn’t do anything, work was a struggle, I didn’t eat, I didn’t work out. Life was rough. I took care of Eva but not myself. I found myself constantly worrying and feeling anxious about being alone and not having anybody in my life. I finally decided to reach out to other people and I’m glad I did. It took me some time to realize that i couldn’t do this on my own. This was difficult for me to admit since I’ve always taking care of everything on my own. It was also difficult for me to accept that healing takes time and that what I am going through can’t be cured by a pill or some other quick intervention. I realize that there are people that are far worse off than me but if it hadn’t been for me reaching out for help and others telling me “hey, I think you may benefit from talking to a counselor”, who knows how much lower I could have fallen.

    1. Well, I said all I wanted to say in my email, but thank you again for being so open about your own recent struggles and I am so glad you sought help!

  2. As someone who has never suffered from depression, I never know what to say on the topic! Your post is all the things I had the clarity to say though!

    1. I think it’s hard for us because we can *try* to understand but not really *relate* what people with depression/anxiety/whathaveyou go through, but I think it’s important to let them know we’re here for them :)

  3. This is an excellent post, San. You should not feel like just another voice chiming in about Bourdain. He touched so many lives in such different ways and I think most of us are shocked that his life would end the way it did. If there is anything positive to come out of this loss, I hope it’s that it brings more awareness to the massive mental health problem there is in the world and encourage to be more open about the battles they struggle with.

    1. Everybody needs to talk more about mental health. I mean, everybody deals with it in one way or another – either personally or through someone close to us. It’s really something everybody needs to be able to relate to.

  4. I take medicine everyday for my anxiety and depression. Thankfully it’s never gotten so bad where I self-harmed, but I’ve had really bad moments. I’m lucky to have my family and a good doctor though – they are there when I need them and when I can finally let out whatever I’m thinking. People say ask for help, but it’s not always that easy, even if you HAVE help. I think that’s obvious when people like celebrities die by suicide because they have the money and resources to get help – but that doesn’t mean it helps them enough to, like you said, see any light at the end of the tunnel. I was so sad to hear about both Kate and Anthony. It’s heartbreaking. Mental health needs to stay in the forefront of people’s minds – all the time. It shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it. Help should be available. Everyone should realize that this is a disease and that it’s okay to admit you have a mental health problem. I hope we’re getting closer to that day.


    1. Thank you for sharing your own struggles with depression and anxiety (that seems to be so, so common – I hear about more and more people!). It’s so important to talk about it and to be supportive and also encourage to seek help. You’re right: it’s a disease like any other and should be treated as such.

  5. I was quite surprised when Kate Spade passed away, but I was definitely more emotionally struck when later in the week the same happened to Anthony Bourdain. It’s like you said, he could bring so many people to the table, listen, and talk, and break bread. He had such a way with words, telling people’s stories and opening us up to so many new places in the world.

    It’s such a shame there is this terrible stigma that persists around mental health. To add to that, there is a loss of the sense of community as we feel so very isolated. People who do struggle with whatever it may be they are going through, usually tend to find it difficult to seek out help and find themselves feeling even more alone, which can sometimes lead to a dangerous place to be.

    I personally wish there were more people like you in this world! Understanding, caring, thoughtful, and always ready to lend a helping hand or to reach out.

    If it were not for certain friends in my life, I’m not sure where I’d be right now. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Awww, thank you my friend. I hope you know that you can come to me if you need to talk about something… whatever it might be! We all need support – no matter if we struggle with mental illness or just the f***ckery of everyday life.

  6. I wrote a few different comments on this subject, but then deleted each one of them. So many feelings and reactions come up and I can’t put them in words……

    Unfortunately I had, and still have to deal with being one “left behind”. This will never go away!

    1. I know my friend, we’ve all been touched by mental illness/suicide in one way or another and that’s why it’s so important to talk about it and make it more “normal”.

  7. Hi San, this is a fabulous awareness post. It’s so true that we accept when people are physically ill but when it’s a mental issue we just don’t SEE. Not fair. In Australia, people take therapy as a part of life the way we may get a haircut. It’s just an accepted part of their lives. Why isn’t it that way here in North America? Instead, we think there’s something wrong with someone when they say they have a therapist. Thanks for opening up this discussion so eloquently and passionately.

    1. I love to hear that therapy is “not a big deal” in Australia! I mean, it isn’t… everybody could benefit from some therapy every once in a while! Why is it so stigmatized in this society? I don’t know but we need to change that!

  8. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Depression in 1996 after suffering for many years. I did not know what was wrong, just that I was one very complicated woman. And a very unhappy and depressed one at that. Finally, I went in to see a psychiatrist and I was diagnosed. That was just the beginning. It took almost 8 years before the correct medications were prescribed and I began to lead a normal life. There have been blips along the way, but I know if I take my medications I will be okay.
    I have written about Depression, Manic Depression and Post Partum Depression on my website. It’s sort of the ugly little secret no one talks about because of the stigma.
    But I have an illness, much like Diabetes. It is not something I wanted to have, but like Diabetes, I do have a chronic condition called Bipolar Illness.
    I would encourage more people to talk about not only their depression but when you have been depressed, sought help, been diagnosed with something, share it. Let people know that you are one of many and that getting help is no sin. In fact, it may save your life, and encourage others to seek the help they need.
    I always worried about Tony Bourdain. Having watched him for many, many years, and his drinking and hectic lifestyle were concerning. He was one of my favourites. And honestly, I did not see this coming. I hope he is at peace, but he has left a large hole in the lives of his family, especially his daughter, and those of us that loved him.

    1. I had no idea you had a mental health diagnosis, Maribeth! Thanks for being so open and sharing part of your own story! I am so glad you’ve thought help and are managing it! It’s not easy and we need support and understanding from the people around us!

  9. Great post, San. Depression and mental health issues really need more focus and less stigma. It’s gotten a bit better, I think, but we have a ways to go. I lost a cousin to suicide and it was so hard on our family. During the sermon, the priest asked those in attendance at the funeral to stand if they would have helped Chris/supported him/etc. the entire congregation rose to their feet and the church was packed. The priest then said to look around and to remember that you are never alone in your struggles. I thought it was a really powerful message and it’s something I have thought about during difficult periods of my life. I struggled with depression in my 20s (and was in a really dark place when my cousin committed suicide) and then in my 30s I have struggled with anxiety and currently take a medication to manage it. I’ve felt shame at times about my need to take medication but then I remind myself that I shouldn’t look at it any differently than I look at my RA meds.

    1. Thanks friend. I really think we just all need to talk about it more… sometimes I feel like I want to stay quiet, because I don’t struggle with mental health issues myself, but then again, I have so many friends and loved ones that do and it becomes even more important for me to be an advocate and say something!

      Everybody has been touched by mental illness/suicide in one way or another and we should open up and not close ourselves up.

      I did not know that you also struggle with anxiety and take medication but I really love how many people have been straight-forward in the comments and shared their own story! Thank you for doing the same!

  10. Great post, San. I have a lot of unorganized thoughts about all of it as well. I think I’m in a similar boat as you – where I don’t have the same daily mental health struggles that some people have, but it doesn’t mean we don’t overthink or have our low moments. I think it’s important for people to talk about it and not feel shamed for asking for help or needing more help for the things they can’t handle alone.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Suki. I think just because we don’t have depression or anxious feelings doesn’t mean we can’t empathize, on the contrary! We can all benefit from just being supportive and kind to others.

  11. Thank you for writing this, San, especially as a person who doesn’t struggle with mental health issues. It’s so important to continue to talk and continue to normalize mental health disorders. That’s what helps me the most when I’m struggling a lot with anxiety or depression – the stories. It helps me to see that I’m not alone in my struggles and that I’ll find my way out of the darkness in due time, even when it feels like I won’t.

    1. I was so happy to see you felt comfortable to share a little bit more about your daily struggles with depression and anxiety on IG stories… because I think hearing people talk/write about their experiences makes it easier to understand what they’re going through, opens up the conversation, AND makes it easier for “outsiders” to come and help/support!

  12. Very well said, lady. It’s such a hard topic, both for people who struggle with depression and for people who don’t. I hope that the more we talk about it, the more we become aware that there are people out there suffering, the easier it is for us to all talk about it, to bring it out into the open and into the light.

    1. I totally agree. If we all talk about it more, it will encourage others to talk about it and share their stories. It’s a win-win for both sides.

Comments are closed.