The apparent suicide of globe-trotting celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain touched off a profusion of shock, sorrow and sympathy from fans and admirers around the globe.
But the high-profile suicides of much-adored celebrities like Bourdain, and other individuals of note, may do more than inspire sorrow among fans.
“It can rock people,” including those vulnerable to thoughts of suicide, said Bill Walker, director of Kern Behavioral Health & Recovery Services. “It can reduce the barriers” between simply knowing about suicide and considering it as an option.
“First and foremost, we want to prevent it,” Walker said.
Unfortunately, suicide is occurring more frequently, not less, both locally and across the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1999 and 2016, the suicide rate nationwide has increased by 30 percent, an astonishing number. And it doesn’t discriminate.
“Suicide rates increased among both sexes, all racial/ethnic groups, and all urbanization levels,” the CDC said in a report released June 7.
Closer to home, suicide rates have seen a steady increase this decade in Kern County, rising from 10.7 deaths per 100,000 population in the years 2008 through 2010 to 14.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2014 through 2016, according to the California Department of Public Health. That’s a 32.7 percent increase in an eight-year span.
Walker stepped up efforts to prevent suicide last year after the high-profile deaths of Bakersfield City Councilman Jeff Tkac and community activist Jai Bornstein. But he remains concerned that Kern is experiencing a “surge” in suicides.
Dr. Jay Fisher, a private-practice psychologist in Bakersfield for the past 34 years, said he has worked with many patients who have had thoughts of suicide.
“I usually have at least one person I check on, on a weekly basis who has had suicidal thoughts,” he said.
Teenagers, especially, are referred to him after they have had a suicide attempt.
The incidence of suicide in a person’s life may actually make them more vulnerable.
“Loss of a parent through suicide puts a child very much at risk,” Fisher said.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, presenting a major, preventable public health problem. Nearly 45,000 Americans killed themselves in 2016, according to the CDC, but suicide deaths only account for part of the problem.
For every suicide death, an estimated 25 people attempt suicide, and those who survive may be left with serious injuries or disabilities, in addition to suffering from depression and other mental health problems, according to Healthy Kern County, a report compiled by a consortium of public and private organizations, including the Kern County Department of Public Health.
In decades past, Walker said, people didn’t hear about suicides all that often, unless the victim was a relative or friend. Mainstream news organizations have long avoided reporting on individual suicides unless they involved a highly public incident or a well-known figure.
But with the ubiquity of social media, news of suicide spreads fast. And when “more and more people are exposed to suicide ... the awareness of it becomes its own empowerment,” Walker said.
Bakersfield resident Jane Gardner calls herself a “survivor” of her dad’s suicide.
“I was grown up and a hundred miles away,” she said. “I hold mixed views: if it was intractable pain from something like cancer, I do believe in a right to die.
“Although psychic pain (of those who die by suicide) must be just as real, the ripple effect on survivors is also very real.”
Gardner said she agreed to share her thoughts via Facebook, “only because there’s a stigma to being a survivor. That just adds to the suffering.”
Walker and Fisher agree, loved ones and friends must talk with each other and share their internal lives with those they trust. There must be communication of feeling.
“It doesn’t cause a kid to commit suicide simply to ask if he’s thought about suicide,” Fisher said.
“That is 100 percent correct,” Walker said. “The research validates that.”
A person who is feeling despair in their inner life needs someone to confide in. But listening alone isn’t enough.
“Help them see themselves as being special,” Fisher said. “Hope is the thing you always want to encourage.”