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Suicide – The Stigma

This post is the first in a three part series on the topic of suicide. Click for the first and third parts.

Death in general is an uncomfortable topic, one that we tend to avoid discussion of—at least most Americans do. Suicide is viewed in such a way that it is whispered about…glossed over…never really talked about. Why is this? It’s too “private”? It’s “shameful”? Or maybe because most of us just don’t understand it.

I tend to fall into the “don’t understand” category, but am working hard to get a hold of understanding. To my way of thinking, to get to the point of comprehending, helping, and possible preventing suicides, one of the first steps has got to be removing the stigma. We need to talk about it. Yes, it is uncomfortable. But it is that very discomfort that contributes to the feelings of isolation that many with suicidal tendencies complain of.

I only came to the realization of just how unspoken the subject of suicide is within the past week when I began to ask the question of how people viewed suicide. It wasn’t until then that I learned a startling number of people that I know have been directly affected by suicide. And I don’t mean one or two friends, I mean of all the people I spoke with, only two were like me and had never known anyone to commit suicide. In fact, most of them knew more than one person who had either attempted or been successful in killing themselves. I was shocked. These are people I’ve known for years, and never had an inkling that such a traumatic event had occurred in their lives.

This led me to ask them outright—why? Understandably it is not something you just walk up and say—Hi, I’m Joan and my uncle committed suicide in our house. I get that. But one friend told me the suicide they’d been affected by was just last year—I never knew, and we talk a few times a week. When I asked why she’d never mentioned it, the answer was simple—she was embarrassed. She told me she felt guilty…as though someone in the family should have known and stopped him. She was also afraid that people would look at her differently because if a family member could kill themselves, did that mean she could do it as well?

Her feelings brought front and center my two core problems with the Suicide Stigma. The first, that people cannot talk about suicide, so if they are thinking it might be an answer to their depression or problems, they feel as though they can’t say that to anyone close to them. The repercussions of doing so can seem worse than the idea itself. Isolation. Estrangement. Possibly even forced hospital confinement. The fear that the people you are hiding your feelings from will just turn their backs on you forever.

The second is that those who have had a loved one commit suicide are so fearful of the negative repercussions if others find out about the suicide that they gloss over it. They fear being ostracized, judged by the actions of their family member, and are wrestling with their own emotions. As a result they say things like “he died” or “we lost her” without being able to bring themselves to say the S word. This inability to speak leads right back to the same feelings of isolation, estrangement and fear that a suicidal person can feel.

The bottom line is our “discomfort” with talking about this subject has serious effects on both those who are considering suicide and those who survive after a loved one has. The only way those effects are ever going to be diminished is if we as a society get more comfortable with discussing difficult issues.

I know plenty of people who believe those who commit suicide are punks who take the easy way out. I also know people who have attempted suicide and believe it takes a kind of strength that most people can’t fathom. I fall somewhere between the two extremes. Mostly I just wish people who are at that point in their lives could see another way, could find hope somewhere. I would encourage everyone out there to have the discussion in their own inner circle. You may be quite surprised (as I was) what you learn about those you care about.

Food for thought. My friend Kristen was wonderful enough to share with me her own struggles with this subject. Her grandfather committed suicide when she was young, and the family was in the house when he did it. Her mother has attempted suicide numerous times, and struggled with Bi-Polar depression for years. I asked her during the course of this exploration of mine what was the one thing she would like the world to understand and know about the experience. She told me “…it would be that my grandpa was a smart, funny, and loving man. He, nor anyone should be judged by that one thing he did. Their memories should live strong, not hidden.”

That made me pause. A suicide is a final action of a person—often a desperate person. That one act should not negate the entire positive side of their lives. We owe it to our friends and family to celebrate the good, and carry that forward. Grieve for the bad, talk about what happened, but then move on. My friend T, who is a Muslim, taught me last year that in his faith, you have three days to be angry at someone. Three days to deal with that anger. Then when your three days is up, it is time to move forward. I think this is a great philosophy in life, and very much applies to anger at suicide. The person who commits suicide is gone. Their survivors are not. Harboring ill will or refusing to speak of what occurred only harms the ones who are left behind. If we care about them, we need to help them, and an easy way to do so is help them remember all that made that person wonderful, regardless of how they ended their life.

Tomorrow, the final entry in this series - a look at the phenomenon known as suicide by cop.

If you or someone you care about is suffering from depression, speaks of suicide, or have had suicidal inclinations, help IS available. Even if you feel there is nowhere to turn, there are people who want nothing more than to be there for you. Just reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, 24-hour hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. They are available at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

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