Anthony Bourdain, the World, and the Challenge of Suicide

Anthony Bourdain with Barack Obama at a noodle joint in Hanoi

Friday morning I turned on the news to find out that Anthony Bourdain had died of an apparent suicide. Many have already commented on his death and its implications, but  I waited to post this until today, so as to let it soak in. Before I get to the question of suicide, let me put this in personal context.

I confess that I am a big Bourdain fan. I love Parts Unknown. It is among my favorite shows on TV. It is intelligent, provocative, insightful, and irreverent. With food as the centerpiece of the story, he took us to places I likely will never go. While I love Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods shows, Bourdain has that extra edge that goes beyond food to the depths of human experience. Bourdain went places that most don't go, and raised questions many are afraid to ask. In fact, he wasn't afraid to tackle political questions with bluntness that I didn't find anywhere else. I will miss spending Sunday evenings with him, and as a resident of Metro-Detroit, who was looking forward to his upcoming documentary on Detroit, this cuts even deeper for me (and many others). So, for very personal reasons, I find this to be a sad day.

Anthony Bourdain is a year older than me. He's successful, wealthy, famous. How could this happen? How could a person in his position commit suicide? The fact is, suicide cuts across all demographics. I heard that in 2016 there were 45,000 suicides. A CDC report came out the day before Bourdain's death noting that suicides are up 30% since 1999. We know that depression can be a major contributing cause, but there are other reasons as well. But, since mental health is a leading contributor, it needs to be noted that our culture has placed an unfortunate stigma on both mental health treatment (probably the reason why it is rarely covered by health insurance) and suicide itself. Some theologies have declared that suicide is an unforgivable sin, which puts tremendous shame on families and friends of those who take their own lives. I don't believe this is true. It is not part of my theology, but it is out there and it is destructive.

I have never contemplated suicide. Even in my darkest moments, it's never crossed my mind. But, while I have not been in that dark place, that is not true of members of my family and friendship circles. Not everyone has followed through, but it is something people have wrestled with. Some refrain or are rescued, but not all are that fortunate. 

I don't think I've ever written about suicide before. I've not forwarded the suicide prevention number that gets posted on Facebook with some regularity. It hasn't been at the forefront of my mind. So, why now? Why not a few days earlier when Kate Spade took her life? For one thing, I didn't know who she was. It didn't register. But with Anthony Bourdain it was different. I knew his name. I enjoyed his shows. But, if it was only about him, then writing a post is irrelevant. The death of a celebrity is no different from the death of anyone else, but the death of a celebrity does allow us to raise important issues that otherwise we keep quiet about. If suicide is on the rise in our nation, then it's time to have that conversation so that lives can be saved. 

With that in mind, I will share the suicide hot line number, just in case someone is reading this and needs someone to talk to. The number at the National Suicide Hotline is: 1-800-273-8255


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