When I was a girl in the ’70s, the term “mentally ill” landed people in institutions or psych wards, and no one I knew ever talked about it openly. And “sad” was the operative word, not “depressed.” Even though we are getting better at talking about depression, the stigma still exists, and the number of middle-age women lost to suicide is drastically growing.
My mother suffered from severe depression at almost the same age as Kate Spade. I was 13 too, just like Spade’s daughter. Thankfully, my mother got help in time. But when she was sick, she was not selfish, nor did she need judgment from those who blamed her for her parenting behavior. She had a disease.
I imagine Spade hid the severity of her symptoms from those closest to her. My mother did the same. Mental illness can cheat and trick even the most loving of mothers. It coerces them into believing that their children and family would be better off not knowing the whole truth, additionally convincing them that their loved ones would be happier without them.
Now, being a mother myself, my first instinct is to protect my children at any and all costs, to remove whatever is at the root of their pain as fast as I can — I cannot bear to see them suffer. But what if I believed I was the cause of their pain? What if my mental illness was so acute that I actually saw myself as the disease? A tumor that had to be eradicated so my child could be happy again.
When my mother was finally well, she wanted to be with me and care for me as much as she could. She couldn’t comprehend that she’d ever believed or behaved differently. It was as if she’d been kidnapped, held down by the weight of a disease that didn’t care who she was or how much she loved me.
Harsh judgments and comments from other women is one of the reasons I believe Spade tried to “power through it [depression] on her own,” as Elyce Arons, Spade’s longtime friend, said in an article published in The New York Times. Spade represented fashion meant to make the buyer feel good, and her brands were described as fun, colorful and whimsical. In a world where depression is still seen as a dark personal failing or a character flaw, Spade was most likely terrified of publicly admitting her depression. “She had everything,” people have said. “Why would she do this?”
These kinds of harsh judgments and comments from other women and mothers are being shared repeatedly on social media and reinforce my belief that Spade was simply trying to protect herself by projecting the image the public expected. I understand that. My mother was also terrified of what people would think of her and the image she tried so hard to uphold.
My son was born when I was 42 — the same age Spade was when her daughter was born. Much younger mothers would ask if I was his nanny or grandmother, and I’d glance down at the size of my stomach and immediately compare it to theirs. Motherhood at middle age was much harder than I ever anticipated, and not because I was at least 10 years older than the other mothers. It was because I was surprised by how critical mothers could be, myself included, about their weight, their skin, if they were doing the right thing for their child and/or their career.
In 2016, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that the highest numbers of suicides that year were those of middle-age adults, ages 45 to 54. This is consistent with a report from a study conducted abroad with the U.K. Office for National Statistics that found that depression affects adults more severely around the age of 50. However, midlife suicides for women are reported to be significantly higher than men. Suicide, in fact, is now among the top 10 leading causes of death for middle-age women, and 28 women commit suicide every day in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Psychiatrist Meghan Riddle with the University of Washington, who writes for Women’s Voices for Change, published an article in 2016 about the increase in female suicides from 1999 to 2014, pointing out that women ages 45 to 64 suffered the most and at an increased rate of 45 percent. Riddle reported that there are many contributing factors: aging baby boomers, social isolation, bereavement, finances, access to opioids and a variety of other individual factors, but one thing is clear, mental health treatment is essential for saving women’s lives at every age, but especially at middle age.
Though Spade had been seeking treatment for several years, she was also juggling multiple responsibilities at age 55: raising a child under 18, marriage after or during menopause, the pressure of continual commercial success with a new brand and persona, Frances Valentine, and all under the watchful and critical eye of the media and the competitive New York fashion scene.
The changes that come at midlife for women, menopause at the top of the list, are still too taboo to openly talk about. If you joke about it, people tune in and laugh, but no one really wants to hear about the reality of menopause, depression and anxiety like they do a fun pair of shoes or a whimsical and colorful handbag.
This is why we have to call out those who unfairly judge mothers like Spade. We need to ring the bell over and over and remind the world that mental illness is nothing to hide. It should be discussed and treated without the stigma and criticism that too often accompanies it in our society.
No one should ever be ashamed to say they suffer from depression or anxiety. Like heart disease or cancer, there should only be compassion for those suffering so that beautiful, creative, intelligent, middle-age women are no longer held hostage by this devastating disease.
If you’re considering suicide or fear you may become suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24-7 at 1.800.273.TALK (8255). If you’re worried about someone you love, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.