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Doctor: Suicide prevention: here's how you can help

For the millions who watched his shows, Anthony Bourdain was a man living his best life, a magnetic interlocutor and ...

Posted: Jun 9, 2018 2:10 PM
Updated: Jun 9, 2018 2:10 PM

For the millions who watched his shows, Anthony Bourdain was a man living his best life, a magnetic interlocutor and bon vivant on a mission filled with travel, new experiences and people, as well as reunions with old friends. In fact, Bourdain seemed to be doing just about everything mental health providers recommend to stay mentally healthy.

Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France on Friday morning. The reported cause of death was suicide.

It shouldn't be a secret, but it remains so for too many of us: No one is living their perfect life. We all struggle. And many of us are affected by a disease that doesn't always show itself, with depression and bipolar disorder being two of the most common mental health diagnoses, both still shrouded in shame.

I personally benefited from counseling services as a depressed medical student. I wasn't alone: Fully 25% of medical students experience depression, but because of the stigma surrounding mental health, I was in the minority by seeking help -- 85% of those who need help don't get it. And these are the people we're training to take care of the rest of us. Think about that.

Bourdain's death comes directly after the suicide of Kate Spade, another beloved celebrity and businesswoman, and following news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that American suicides generally have spiked by 25% since 1999. We all know there's something deeply wrong here, and that we have to do better. Mental health is the foundation of life, and we've got to do everything we can to preserve it.

We don't know the private details of Bourdain's life and the issues that may have contributed to this event. He wrote about drug use and depression in his earlier years, but by his own description, and all evidence, was physically fit, high energy and enjoying his job presenting "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" for CNN.

We need to channel our dismay about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade into useful advocacy, philanthropy and political action. America's suicide rate was unacceptable in 1999, and it's a monumental tragedy now. There are important organizations working to solve this problem, staffed by smart and dedicated people, and vital research is taking place. Such organizations and such research need our support. Here are a few:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: With 85 local chapters, including one in every state, this $22 million organization backs research vetted by an all-star scientific council, provides conferences for survivors and families, and puts on the Out of Darkness Walks, which improve awareness and raise money to support this mission.

The Columbia Lighthouse Project: An academic center with support from AFSP, among others, this group proliferates an evidence-based series of questions anyone can learn how to ask and use, which helps gauge suicide risk. The Project trains people how to use the rating scale and what do if the risk is high.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. Like many people in health care, I've spent time volunteering for such a lifeline. The experience can be invaluable, and these services do work. It is backed by the Mental Health Association of New York City, with support from a federal grant, and many other organizations are involved in keeping this national 24/7 lifeline running.

The Trevor Project: This $6 million organization exists to support LGBT youth in crisis, operates a safe social network, supports research into decreasing the burden of suicide and depression in this population and advocates to help the nation continue to become more tolerant of its diversity.

The JED Foundation: This $5.5 million organization focuses on teens and young adults, helping prevent substance abuse and suicide, targeting the age group when most major mental health problems are diagnosed. It works with high schools and colleges to train educators and counselors on suicide prevention, understanding that suicide and substance abuse prevention is an institution-wide responsibility, and the entire structure of the campus community must support mental health and well-being.

Issues of access to mental health services don't appear to have played a role in the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, but they do for thousands of others.

The disregard of our health insurers, federal and private, for adequate mental health care coverage helps foster an atmosphere everyone suffers from, whether wealthy and famous or just getting by, that mental health services are a luxury rather than an essential service everyone may need at stages of our lives -- or continuously, like insulin.

As a practicing physician, I serve as a board member for Mental Health America of Georgia, my state's chapter of a national organization advocating for the services everyone needs ready access to. This weekend I'll be helping fundraise for MHA Georgia so we can continue providing mental health education to the state's children and mental health crisis training for first responders.

Please search out what you can do in your community -- or support any of the organizations above, so we can save each other, and bend back these terrible statistics.

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