Anthony Bourdain took the road less travelled, avoiding scripted, safe experiences. He valued the visceral, “authentic” (a word Bourdain used but said he despised during a 2016 NPR interview) nature of human existence.
Perhaps it is this about Bourdain that has made his life and death resonate so powerfully among not just mainstream media outlets, but for individuals across the globe.
He cared about all that matters and did not waste time on trivial matters. “I detest competent workmanlike storytelling,” Bourdain said of his penchant for creative risk. “A powerful reaction, in one way or the other, is infinitely preferable to me than pleasing everybody.”
Wikipedia comprehensively ticks off Bourdain’s professional roles – he was an “American celebrity chef, author, travel documentarian and television personality who starred in programs focusing on the exploration of international culture, cuisine and the human condition.”
Through all that success and self-proclaimed happiness, how did he reach a point where he felt taking his own life was the only answer?
Sharron Lewis, clinical director for Oceans Behavioral Hospital in DeRidder, said, “When high-profile suicides are covered in the media, we are not always able to see the whole picture of the person’s life.
“None of us are immune from pain and we are not all equipped in the same manner to cope with distress.”
As the debate about school shootings continuously erupts, the state of mental healthcare in the United States has lingered as an odyssey on the landscape for years. Initially on the horizon, this national conversation is panning in for a closeup.
Bourdain believed there is a “direct, inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together regularly are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies (and) commit suicide…”
With comments like this, it is no wonder that many people are baffled by his recent suicide. On the other hand, it is one thing to cerebrally understand suicide, and another to experience the struggle.
“In reality, no matter how successful, happy, rich or fulfilled someone seems to be on the outside, we never know what other issues they could be dealing with internally,” Lewis said. “Because of the stigma often associated with behavioral health treatment, individuals struggling with mental health issues may not feel comfortable seeking help when they need it.”
In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older took their own lives. This figure reflects the fact that suicide rates in the country have dramatically risen nearly 30 percent since 1999, according to two reports released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coincidentally just one day before Bourdain took his own life.
"Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans – and it's a tragedy for families and communities across the country," CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., stated in a news release.
Pinpointing a specific cause for the increase in suicide rates in recent years is impossible. “People can attempt suicide for many different reasons,” Lewis said. “We can look at rising rates of depression, anxiety and other behavioral health issues to try and make a correlation, but each situation is unique.
“The good news is treatment exists to help people who suffer from these and other issues.”
Fostering a continuous open dialogue about local mental health treatment options is key in creating a culture where people feel comfortable asking for help.
“Often it takes the person experiencing the pain to take the first step and make their issues known – by confiding in a friend, reaching out to a professional or through some other avenue,” Lewis said.
This initial action helps those struggling with behavioral health issues feel less isolated.
Knowing the risk factors that can trigger suicidal ideation is important, Lewis said. “Previous suicide attempts and having a close family member or friend that has committed suicide are two of the highest risk factors for future suicide attempts.”
The presence of significant stressors such as sudden change or loss can contribute to suicidal ideation. “In our area in particular, natural disasters can create sudden changes in people’s livelihood and contribute to feelings of loss,” Lewis said. “Other factors include major life changes such as retirement, and changes in functioning such as experiencing a disability.
Bourdain implored people to push out of comfort zones as he did in his lifelong embrace with the humanity present in all cultures.
Above all else Bourdain celebrated connection with fellow human beings. Paradoxical as it may be to take advice from him in this moment, that connection could be exactly what someone struggling with thoughts of suicide needs.
“Don't be afraid to ask someone if they need help,” Lewis said. “Many people want someone to reach out to them and will report that one person showing concern kept them from attempting suicide.”