Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Thank you very much for contributing to our June Membership Drive! If you didn't have a chance to donate, please do so at any time. We look forward to your support!

After Kate Spade's Death, Widening The Conversation About Women's Mental Health

In this May 13, 2004 file photo, designer Kate Spade poses with shoes from her next collection in New York. Law enforcement officials say Tuesday, June 5, 2018, that New York fashion designer Kate Spade has been found dead in her apartment in an apparent suicide. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
In this May 13, 2004 file photo, designer Kate Spade poses with shoes from her next collection in New York. Law enforcement officials say Tuesday, June 5, 2018, that New York fashion designer Kate Spade has been found dead in her apartment in an apparent suicide. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

With Robert Siegel

Fashion icon Kate Spade’s death by suicide has launched a new conversation about women’s mental health.


Matthew Schneier, styles reporter for The New York Times. (@MatthewSchneier)

Susan Matthews, science editor at Slate. (@susanematthews)

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and licensed psychologist.

Shainna Ali, licensed mental health counselor.


If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts please seek help.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online.

If you are experiencing a substance misuse problem please seek help.

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).


On Kate Spade and her brand:

Schneier: “It really connected with women at the beginning of their careers, and younger women, as the years went on, it became — in certain circles at least — a kind of status symbol for younger women starting out. She absolutely became a brand. She’s one of the people we think of as kicking off this lifestyle brand movement and I think in that way an inspiration for later designers and brands.”

On suicides committed by women:

Harkavy-Friedman: “The rate of suicide has been increasing since about 1999. We do see the largest increase for middle-aged women, 44 to about 59. We don’t really understand what the contributors to that are. [Suicide] is very infrequent — about 13.42 per 100,000 people die by suicide. Which is why when you hear somebody talking about it, you want to take it seriously.”

Is there a gender gap? Who is more likely to be suicidal?

Harkavy-Friedman: “There is a gender difference, but of course, suicide affects all genders, all races, all types of people. But men die by suicide almost four times as much as women [according to most recent numbers]. The rate for women has been increasing a little bit more than for men.”

On perfectionism:

Ali: “Generally speaking, [Kate Spade] is this quintessential image of a woman who is so successful in her field, and that’s why so many reactions — whether it’s fans or celebrities, or us here — are shocked to hear a little bit about that. But perfectionism has individuals becoming very self-critical. They can be setting high expectations for themselves. Especially if we’re thinking about individuals in leadership positions, there’s the fear of: ‘How am I going to be perceived if I were to have a mental health concern, or if I were willing to disclose that I were dealing with mental health care as well?'”

On suicide hotlines and the U.S. mental health care system:

Matthews: “Suicide hotlines and help that can happen in the moment is one part of the equation. The second part of the equation is having a robust and accessible mental health care system for people to get routine treatment so that they have more of an ability to manage and take control of their symptoms and to get the help that they need in the long term.

Right now in the U.S., the system is opaque, it’s hard to navigate. It’s particularly difficult for people when they’re trying to access that system when they’re probably at one of their lowest moments. And that makes it a bit difficult to break into and to find the right treatment and to find the right plan for you to manage those kinds of problems.”

From The Reading List:

The New York Times: “Kate Spade, Whose Handbags Carried Women Into Adulthood, Is Dead at 55” — “Buying a Kate Spade handbag was a coming-of-age ritual for a generation of American women. The designer created an accessories empire that helped define the look of an era. The purses she made became a status symbol and a token of adulthood.

Ms. Spade, who was found dead Tuesday in what police characterized as a suicide by hanging, worked as an editor before making the leap to designing, constructing her first sketches from paper and Scotch tape. She would come to attach her name to a bounty of products, and ideas: home goods and china and towels and so much else, all of it poised atop the thin line between accessibility and luxury.

One of the first of a wave of American women contemporary designers who emerged in the 1990s, she built a brand on the appeal of clothes and accessories that made shoppers smile. She embodied her own aesthetic, with her proto-1960s bouffant, nerd glasses and playful grin. Beneath that image was a business mind that understood the opportunities in building a lifestyle brand, almost before the term officially existed.”

(Read: Andy Spade’s Statement About Kate Spade’s Death)

Slate: Suicide Hotlines Provide a Critical Service, but They Can’t Make Up for America’s Broken Mental Health Care System” — “Hotlines are a critical tool in suicide prevention. I’ve volunteered for one for three years precisely because of the role they can play in saving lives. I’m relieved and heartened to see so many people sharing this type of resource. Doing so increases the likelihood that more people who need this sort of support will realize it exists and may subtly help break down the stigma against asking for help.

But a crisis hotline is just one part of the support system that ought to exist for anyone dealing with mental health issues. A suicide hotline is there in the moment, and the volunteers who are triaging the calls (with oversight from trained mental health professionals) are working their hardest to mitigate immediate harm and to direct people calling in toward longer-term solutions and plans. That second part of that triaging requires the existence of longer-term support systems to which to refer people.”

Psychology Today: The Barriers to Kate Spade’s Mental Health” — “With the news of Kate Spade’s passing, it was unclear if Spade was aware of her mental health problems or was seeking treatment for her concerns. Reta Saffo, Kate Spade’s sister, confirmed with the Kansas City Star (link is external) that her sister was suffering from mental health illness for years. Spade displayed symptoms of Bipolar disorder, which were influenced by the pressure of her growing brand. Further, she was self-medicating with alcohol. Although it is unclear if Spade ever received mental health help, such as individual therapy, Saffo shared that her sister’s concerns warranted inpatient hospitalization. Saffo shared how she tried to support her sister’s journey to seeking help and encouraged her to attend treatment programs. Although awareness and encouragement are helpful when trying to help a loved one heal their mental health concerns, but for Kate Spade, like many others, there were barriers in the way.”

Every day, more than twenty American women die by suicide. This week designer Kate Spade was one of them. Her husband now says she was in active treatment for years. The number of suicides keeps rising for both women and men. Why? And can the death of someone who was famously successful start a new conversation about mental health, care and stigma?

This hour, On Point: the Kate Spade tragedy and what it might teach us.

– Robert Siegel

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit