The sad news of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain has once again turned a spotlight on mental health and depression, and the resources available to help those they afflict. As NPR reported this morning, “The number of people dying by suicide in the United States has risen by about 30 percent in the past two decades”—and rates are now rising faster among women than men. This week we invite you, as we do periodically, to journey with us into the Culture Briefing archive, in the hope that topics we’ve discussed in the past can help make sense of the news of the present.

Though diagnosed mental health issues aren’t the only thing driving suicide rates up, understanding them better is a place to start. In several previous volumes we’ve examined the sources, scope, and symptoms of various mental health issues. Here are four:

  • In Vol. 38: On Downward Mobility, we shared stories chronicling the ease with which those who have made it up can fall back down again. In particular, we pointed to reporter Terrence McCoy’s stories about Americans who achieved some measure of success, even fame, before mental and financial struggles turned the tables.

  • In Vol. 40: On Mental Health & Public Responsibility, we wrote about the ways that, “in the case of mental health, exploitation often comes by way of inattention”; in particular, the ways in which the criminal justice system has had to compensate for the lack of public resources allocated to providing care for the mentally ill.

  • In Vol. 61: On Medicine, we wrote about a California town where suicides have doubled since 1999. There we cited the work of Kimberly Kindy and Dan Keating, who report that, in response to these alarming spikes, a “loose network” of medical professionals and counselors have found themselves “struggling to understand a generation of women overwhelmed by modern life and undone by modern medicine.”

  • Vol. 90: On Deaths of Despair, we cited a recap of a study that found that “the rate of “deaths of despair” (deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide) in midlife for white non-Hispanics rose in nearly every part of the country and at every level of urbanization—from deep rural areas to large central cities—hitting men and women similarly.”

According to the NIH, 18.3% of U.S. adults live with mental illness, and 4.2% suffer from “Serious Mental Illness,” which is the NIH’s term for a “mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment.” As we wrote in Vol. 38, stories about those who suffer from mental illnesses of all kinds “should cause us to consider the fragility that marks our lives,” and reflect on the way we can help our communities become communities of care.

On an unrelated and somewhat lighter note: as the long-awaited (or long-dreaded) Last Day of School approaches, we invite you to revisit a podcast and two articles from Vol. 52: On Summer. This volume spoke to both the “whimsy and recreation” that can make summer such fertile ground for happy memories, and the uncomfortable reality that for many families, a lack of affordable childcare keeps happy summers out of reach. In “The Families That Can’t Afford Summer,” KJ Dell’Antonia empathetically injects a dose of cold reality into what is, for many, a warmly romanticized season.


In closing, we’d like to share two quick notes from our staff. First, we want to thank our longtime readers for sticking with us, and for the thoughtful feedback many of you share. We strive to bring you thoughtful commentary on complex and important cultural trends, and hearing from readers about how we’ve either succeeded or fallen short is both encouraging and illuminating.

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