The shocking, sad news of two celebrity deaths by suicide this week have had a profound impact. Both phenomenally successful in their respective crafts, the deaths of iconic fashion designer Kate Spade and legendary chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain have left for many what seems to be the all too familiar question…why?

When a celebrity’s death brings attention to behavioral health, we all suddenly share a moment of illumination on the all too often hushed topic of mental illness. The sad reality is that tens of thousands of people take their own lives every week that don’t make headlines—and the numbers are almost certainly underreported.

(Just today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new research that shows a substantial increase in death by suicide in the United States since 1999.)

Depression is one the most common psychiatric illnesses in the aging population. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), one in six people will experience depression at some time in their life and for those that experience prolonged episodes of depression there is a greater risk of suicidal ideation.

Antony Sheehan, president and CEO of South Shore Mental Health, explains that the startling statistics are caused from the realities all around us, including:

  • Youth depression being on the rise.
  • Mental illness associated with substance abuse, regardless of which comes first, is not going away.
  • Too many people with mental illness don’t have access to the treatment they need.
  • Mental health is treated differently than other areas of health, as if it’s less urgent to treat.

“Sadly, people with mental Illness die younger than the rest of the population,” said Antony. “Yet it still carries significant stigma that discourages people from seeking help.”

Because there are still attitudes within most societies that view symptoms of depression and mental illness as uncomfortable and sometimes even unnecessarily threatening, these attitudes frequently foster stigma and discrimination towards people with mental health problems. Often subtle and even unintentional, stigma’s harmful effects can be detrimental to a person in need of help. Many become reluctant to seek help or treatment because there is a lack of understanding by friends, family co-workers or others.

“Stigma can play a powerful role in inhibiting an individual getting help and therefore vastly increase risk,” says Barbara Green Ph.D, medical director of Youth Health Connection at South Shore Health. “We know that some mental illness diagnoses have biological origins and therefore should not be held to cultural standards or values different than other physical illnesses.”

Sustaining the conversation after the shock of the news like the deaths of Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain vanishes from the headlines is important because all the other lives that don’t make the headlines also matter and countless other lives are hanging in the balance.

South Shore Health and South Shore Mental Health understand that change is urgent and are working together to put behavioral health services center stage. “There can be no health without mental health,” Antony explains. “It is integral to the well-being of the whole community.”

Placing mental health center stage means creating an environment that is safe and supportive, free of judgment or prejudice. The goal is to make emotional well-being integral to our definition of overall health while being actively committed to ending the societal stigma around behavioral health.

“We can’t all affect what happens in Congress or what is in the national budget for mental health services, but we can still all care, we can still see the people in front of us and know that there is always a deeper story,” said Antony. “We can be willing to hear it and be part of it. When we act in those ways toward one another, we help end the stigma.”