Midweek Update - 6/7/18

Two events this week underscore the importance of this week’s upcoming show—or at least its subject.

The fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead on Tuesday, an apparent suicide at the age of 55. As CNN points out, Spade’s death reflects an increasingly common story:

Spade's apparent suicide comes as suicide rates in the United States increased from 1999 to 2014 for everyone between the ages of 10 and 74, according to a 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For white women, the suicide rate increased by 60% during that period, the study found.

Like many who die by suicide, there were warning signs:

Older sister Reta Saffo said the tragic turn of events was not "unexpected", adding that the family had tried to get Spade help a number of times in recent years, and she had been self-medicating with alcohol.

"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 hospitalisation)," Ms Saffo told the Kansas City Star.

Ms Saffo, Spade's senior by two years, said the pressures of her billion-dollar fashion brand exacerbated her sister’s stress.

"She was always a very excitable little girl and I felt all the stress/pressure of her brand may have flipped the switch where she eventually became full-on manic depressive," she said.

Untreated mental illness, substance abuse, and talking obsessively about suicide or one’s own death are all risk factors for completed suicide. It’s sad, but not unusual, that Spade struggled for years, nor that her family sought unsuccessfully to get her the help she needed.

Another celebrity serves up a reminder of the world’s pain. Today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday, had he not died from an overdose of prescription pain medication in April 2016. Like Kate Spade, Prince was indicative of larger trends: deaths by overdose are also increasing in the U.S., as are rates of addiction to opioids. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease out how much of this is direct suicidality, how much is “simply” flirting with death, or—as seems to have been the case with Prince—how much was the unfortunate result of lingering pain from medical conditions.

Prince was well-known as a Jehovah’s Witness, while I couldn’t find out any more about Spade’s faith than that she attended an all-girls Catholic high school.

In the wake of preventable deaths, there are always legitimate questions to be asked about what, if anything, the church could have done.1 Could the local Kingdom Hall have steered Prince away from his growing dependence on pain killers? What role did his beliefs (including the traditional Witness ban on transfusions) play in that dependence? Might Kate Spade still be with us had she chosen to confide in a priest, or been an active member of a parish? There’s some evidence to say yes to that question, but it’s no guarantee.

There is also the question of how accepting the church is of those who live with mental illness. Many expressions of the Christian faith are warm and supportive, but many understand substance abuse as a moral failing, and mental illness to be overcome by prayer and greater faith. The stigma against suicide has faded in recent years, at least.

Both Spade and Prince’s woes seem to have stemmed in part from image. Spade wanted to preserve her reputation as the happy-go-lucky designer, according to her sister. Prince couldn’t bring himself to admit publically that his hips were ruined after decades of dancing onstage. He literally wanted the show to go on.

And that brings me to my real question. What is the church’s responsibility to allow people to be who they are? To go beyond the bounds of politeness to claim their real struggles, including depression, anxiety, mania, suicidality? To simply allow them to drop their image and be who they are, without pressure or judgment? Too often, church is the place where we are expected to bring our best selves, our perfect selves, in some attitude that lies squarely between the inspirational and the aspirational. Meanwhile, our real, imperfect selves suffer and sometimes die for the lack of God’s nurturing, accepting love.

Why must this be so?

There are no real answers to that question. That is to say, it is a question the church must wrestle with continually. As suicide and overdose creep up in our causes of death, it’s a pig the church probably needs to get down and dirty with more often. A lot more often.

1Any religious institution, really, but I’m a churchman, so that is where I focus.