Why suicide is more common among celebrities, CEOs and creatives, and how therapy helps
The recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade highlight how famous and successful people are more likely to suffer from mental problems than the rest of us, says a psychologist who has treated Hong Kong and China celebrities
The deaths of chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade by suicide have thrown the spotlight on celebrities and depression. Instead of bringing them happiness and freedom, for many, being sought-after, rich and at the top of their game leads to an identity crisis and ruminations on their self-worth.
Candice Lam Yue-tung, a clinical psychologist who founded Mindcare in Central in 2008, knows first-hand the mental struggles besetting the famous and powerful from her extensive experience of treating celebrities in Hong Kong and China.
While keeping her patients’ identities confidential, Lam says half of them are either celebrities, bank CEOs, or movers and shakers in the political world.
Some celebrities are prone to depression and bipolar disorder due to incessant media and public scrutiny, she adds.
“Under more pressure than ordinary people, my patients suffer from a range of mental disorders – like panic attacks, insomnia, violent outbursts, substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, sex addiction and kinky or deviant sexual behaviour.”
Some of her patients are second-generation rich who do not want the attention that is thrust upon them from the day they are born.
“They also feel badly that family ties, instead of their own achievements, are the reason for their fame,” says Lam.
“Those who have an illustrious career in banking or other fields have sacrificed a lot, like family and romantic relationships, to rise to the top. Their support network is weaker than that of ordinary people.”
Constant public exposure and the media glare also nurture a tendency towards perfection and a pathological aversion to fashion faux pas and social missteps, she adds.
“Some of my patients cannot help but compare themselves with others at social functions. They subject themselves to constant self-criticism. Some are so anxious about how others view them that they have to take medicine to relax.”
Others are too fearful to seek expert advice, fearing their weakness will be exposed. Lam references Kate Spade’s sister who said Spade herself suspected she was suffering from bipolar disorder. This illness causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
“Worried that seeking medical treatment would affect her fashion brand’s image, she turned to drinking as an escape. The mental struggles eventually cost her life,” says Lam.
Working in the arts industry has long been, literally, the kiss of death for many of the creatively gifted.
According to a 2014 study by University of Sydney psychology professor Dianna Kenny of 12,665 musicians and stars who died between 1950 and June 2014, the chances of famous musicians and rock stars dying from unnatural causes are five to 10 times greater than the general population. Pop and rock stars die up to 25 years younger than average people.
According to a 2010 survey by Health.com, people working in the arts are fifth out of the 10 groups most likely to suffer from depression, with around nine per cent of them reporting a major depressive episode in the previous year. (The top four were professional care workers, food service staff, social workers and health care workers.)
Whether working in the arts leads to mental ailments, or the mentally fragile are prone to choose arts as their calling, has long been a moot point.
Lam quoted a 2012 study from Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet that reinforced the view that mental disorders are more likely to affect those in creative professions. The study, which tracked almost 1.2 million patients and their relatives, found a salient connection between writing and schizophrenia. The study also found that artists and scientists were more common in families in which schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are present.
“According to the study, writers’ likelihood of committing suicide is twice that of ordinary people,” says Lam.
“It’s not necessarily that the process of creation leads to psychiatric disorders. Conversely, such people possess exceptional mental faculties, which help them attain brilliance in their creative work. It’s the same as the autistic having extraordinary concentration skills and bipolar patients having tremendous energy to do their work.”
As part of her treatment, Lam administers cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, to help her patients change their mindset. CBT focuses on solutions and encourages clients to challenge their distorted ideas and change destructive behaviour patterns.
“They need to learn to let go, nurture other pursuits in life besides their career, stop finding fault with themselves, and accept that being less than perfect is normal.”
People who are distressed or in need of support can contact the Samaritan Befrienders’ 24-hour hotline on 2389 2222; the Suicide-Prevention Services on 2382 0000; or the Society for the Promotion of Hospice Care on 2868 1211.