Depression hidden with a smile

Kate Spade poses during an interview in New York in 2004. Bebeto Matthews | AP 2004

The suicide of a well-known person has opened the window on a national dialogue on mental health and depression, a traditionally short period during which we are afforded the opportunity to learn something about the health scourge from which we typically turn away.

Kate Spade’s story is the story of hundreds of thousands of people. Her siblings knew the real story. They tried to get her the help she needed but they were unable to. They could only wait for the inevitable phone call while torturing themselves to come up with something that would lead her to help save herself.

It didn’t work, of course. The fashion designer’s body was found on Tuesday.

You can hide your depression from others with a smile, Daphne Merkin, author of “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression,” writes in an op-ed in today’s New York Times.

“We are all, always, outsiders when it comes to other people’s pain. But there is no starker reminder of that truth than suicide,” Merkin writes.

Having suffered from acute depression since I was a very young girl, I am all too familiar with this paradox. I learned early on — no one wants to be around a sad girl, after all — to artfully distance myself from my own downcast mood, to whistle a happy tune around my peers as well as adults in official positions, such as teachers and doctors.

But no amount of performing undoes depression’s private power. When you are down under it, depression obliterates the world around you. It makes you feel as if the experience of being consumed by darkness will never end.

I didn’t know Kate Spade, who hanged herself with a red scarf in her bedroom on Tuesday at the age of 55, other than through the prism of her insistently cheerful and whimsical accessories. But everything about Ms. Spade and her designs suggested a sunny temperament, from her candy-colored aesthetic to the perky image she projected. We have a hard time squaring a seemingly successful woman — one with a highflying career, a family and heaps of money — with a despondency so insinuating that it led her to end it all.

All this helps explain why Fern Mallis, the former director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a friend of Ms. Spade’s, called her death “so out of character.” In fact, it turned out that the bubbly girl from Kansas City “suffered from depression and anxiety for many years,” as her husband, Andy, said.

Merkin has fought the urge to take her own life for years. Writing her book and exploring her illness, she says, has “broken the fatal allure of suicide.”

And yet, when she hears of the suicide of a famous person, she thinks, “you got out.”

Why doesn’t she take her own life? She says she is fascinated by observing what suicide leaves in its wake.

Silence.