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Opinion: Pausing at Mental Health

Opinion: Pausing at Mental Health

Two high-profile suicides, one in the fashion industry, the other in the food and entertainment industry, left many of us stunned and shaken this past month. Handbag designer Kate Spade was “human Champagne,” according to the Vogue tribute that ran on the day of her death. Writer and chef Anthony Bourdain is also being memorialized for his irreverent joie de vivre, though his struggles with self-destructive behaviors have been more public, not least through his own memoirs. 

The two suicides have prompted a national conversation about rising suicide rates in the U.S., and the awareness that suicide may be a preventable public health issue rather than a tragedy stemming from personal factors alone. Considering the social determinants of suicide leads us to critically examine cultural stigmas surrounding mental health. It asks us to think more carefully about the emotional labor underpinning industries as well as lifestyles built on performances of glamour, sensationalism and cool. Spade’s death in particular offers the fashion community an opportunity to reflect beyond Spade’s – and fashion’s – characteristic exuberance. What do we know about mental health among fashion industry workers and what do we want to know? 

 

The missing case of mental health

Mental health statistics about fashion industry workers are hard to find. One of the largest recent studies of workplace mental health was published in 2014. It surveyed around 214,000 workers across 55 industries in, however, an area of the country with weak ties to the fashion industry (western Pennsylvania). [1] Another large study published in 2007 may be more relevant. The data indicated that among full-time employed respondents across the U.S., those experiencing the highest rates of past-year major depressive episodes (10.8%) worked in personal care and service industries. (Food service and preparation industries, it so happens, came in a close second at 10.3%.) [2]

The most direct data, on a small but crucial segment of fashion industry workers, comes from the Model Alliance. The New York-based non-profit promotes labor rights throughout the industry’s supply chain, and devotes a portion of their website to reports on models’ health. A 2012 industry survey of 241 women models, many of whom are considered supermodels, revealed a depression rate of 68.3%. [3]

According to the Model Alliance, 68.3% likely understates depression rates in the broader population of model workers for several reasons. The surveyed models were “older, more established and financially stable” compared to “most [who] begin working before age 16.” These teenage models are working far – often thousands of miles – from home, freelance and unchaperoned, the report further points out. Drug use on the job is “rampant.”

A “sizable minority” has experienced sexual harassment. [4] 

 

Building transparency

The little we know about models’ mental health is a starting point for acknowledging that mental health should be a matter of concern in the fashion industry. What are rates of depression for those who work in fashion manufacturing? In fashion design? In fashion retail and editorial? In fashion teaching? While models embody the desirability and élan central to the industry’s success, performing glamour is a tacit part of many fashion jobs. Spade’s death is a reminder that the discrepancy between the performance and the realities of working in fashion can be devastating. [5]

Conducting research about mental health in the fashion industry, as the Model Alliance has done, is one way to raise awareness. Other recent industry initiatives spearheaded by the Model Alliance include providing access to healthcare and creating a culture of transparency around work conditions. This holistic approach to mental health should inspire all of us in the fashion community to be more open and vocal about workplace mental health. Let’s pay a longer-lasting tribute to Spade, Bourdain, and others who have succumbed to suicide by paying more attention to the mental health of our co-workers and of ourselves.

 

Notes

[1] See study mentioned in Joe Pinsker, “Which Jobs Have the Highest Rates of Depression?,” Atlantic Magazine, December 22, 2014: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/which-jobs-have-the-highest-rate-of-depression/383947/.

[2] See study mentioned in “Quantifying the Cost of Depression,” Center for Workplace Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation: http://www.workplacementalhealth.org/Mental-Health-Topics/Depression/Quantifying-the-Cost-of-Depression.

[3] See “2012 Industry Survey,” Model Alliance: http://modelalliance.org/industry-analysis.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Among model workers, high-profile suicides in recent years include those of Ruslana Korshunova in 2008 and of Daul Kim in 2009. Designer Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2010 and editor Isabella Blow’s suicide in 2007 were also major news stories. 

 

Peep This Insta: @fools.and.mortals

Peep This Insta: @fools.and.mortals