Why did Anthony Bourdain commit suicide?

Albert Camus, the French humanist, wrote, “There is only one true philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Pliny the Elder had said earlier, “Admit the miseries of our life on earth, suicide is God’s best gift to man.”

But what prompted Anthony Bourdain of TV’s “Parts Unknown” to hang himself? And could medical care have prevented it?

The Doctor Game

Suicide rates are rising in North America. For instance, among girls 10 to 19 the suicide rate has increased a shocking 70 percent.

It’s easy to understand how elderly people, dying of metastatic cancer, who are in severe pain, decide to call it a day. Or, those who have lost a loving partner, who are depressed, believe the world is in a mess, and pull the trigger. Even   someone with a boring job, a nagging partner, living from pay check to pay check who decides life is just not worthwhile.

But Anthony Bourdain was apparently not physically ill, not financially destitute, not concerned about getting his next meal, and not lacking in fame. In fact, he remarked he had “the greatest job in the world.”

So fame and fortune do not protect some people from suicide. What about depression?  According to Dr. Anne Schuchat, Deputy Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “depression is not a condition that’s related to success or failure.” This means no one is immune to suicide.

But success related suicides are harder to evaluate than lifetime failures. No doubt depression plays a role. But according to the CDC over half of those who commit suicide do not have a mental problem. So is the increase in suicide the result of societal problems?

Consider this single fact. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, 11 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are on antidepressant drugs! And 1 in 4   women in their 40 and 50s are also on antidepressant medication. If you don’t believe this doesn’t indicate deep societal problems, you’d better start smoking marijuana. We are a mentally sick pill-infected nation.

It’s also ironic that antidepressant side-effects have been linked to sleep disturbance, brain damage and suicide. The other irony is that there is little evidence they benefit patients suffering from mild to moderate depression. And that in 80 percent of cases, they work no better than a placebo sugar pill.

Could medical treatment have saved Bourdain’s life? Maybe, but I doubt it. If this were possible, Ernest Hemingway, a famous author, and Philip Graham, owner of the Washington Post newspaper, both treated at a famous clinic, would still be alive. Great wealth and expensive care cannot heal a brain that’s dedicated to eventual self-destruction. Moreover, some victims never reveal their inner thoughts to anyone. And an Arizona study showed that 80 percent of successful suicides visited a doctor one month prior to self-inflicted death!

Some suicide victims believe they will be reunited with a loved one. This is proven by the fact that the anniversary of a devoted partnership is a high risk period for suicide.

Possible suicide should be suspected if a person claims to be a burden, talks about suicide, has increased anxiety, increased alcohol or drug use, sleeps too much, expresses hopelessness, or withdraws from activities.

I wish I knew why spring is the favourite time for suicide. But Torontonians usually kill themselves in the fall. And why do Toronto males tend to commit suicide on Sunday and women on Monday? There are many unanswered questions.

I also wish I knew why Bourdain, who had fame and fortune, was so depressed that he hung himself in a hotel room in France while working on another episode of “Parts Unknown.” His brain must have been in the throes of unbearable turmoil to give up so much of a productive life.

Fortunately, most people, even those tired of life, struggle on. As Shakespeare wrote in his play, Hamlet, “The fear of something after death, the undiscovered country from which no bourn returns, puzzles the will, and makes us bear those ills we have, than fly to others we know not of.”

— W. Gifford-Jones MD


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