By Tamara Van Newkirk, Member of the Anti-Stigma Project
Suicide is a serious and preventable public health issue. It affects people of all ages, socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, cultures and religions. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the 2nd leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24.
It is estimated that 5 million people in this country have been directly affected by a suicide. In 2015, 9.8 million American adults had serious thoughts of suicide. It is widely accepted that most people who are suicidal do not want to die; they want to end the pain they are experiencing.
An integral component of suicide prevention is in decreasing the stigma surrounding suicide. The roots of stigma run deep. In many major religions it was considered a sin (and still is for some) to take one’s life. It was also considered a crime- an act of self-murder. In Europe during the Middle Ages the body of one who had taken their life was dragged through the street and buried at a crossroads as a way to confuse and prevent the person’s ghost from returning.
While these beliefs and practices ended long ago with increased understanding of mental illness, there is still much stigma surrounding suicide which can manifest in beliefs and practices that, while not as archaic, remain harmful. Stigma is complex and can affect people thinking about suicide, those who have attempted suicide, and those who have lost a loved one to suicide. In many ways, the stigma of suicide is an extension of the stigma of behavioral health disorders. Stigma can prevent someone from seeking help for a treatable mental health condition and, as the vast majority of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental health disorder (most commonly depression), stigma can be fatal. Other examples of the stigma of suicide include:
People who have suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide are often viewed as weak, selfish, even sinful.
People who have lost a loved one to suicide are often stigmatized or even blamed for the death. This can intensify feelings of confusion and isolation and elevate the survivor’s risk of suicide.
Family members/survivors may be intensely uncomfortable with acknowledging that their loved one died by suicide. Because of the stigma, some families who have lost a member to suicide find it difficult to disclose the cause of death to those outside of the family (and sometimes even within the family). This can have an impact on their ability to heal from their loss.
Stigma also has its reaches within the emergency healthcare and first responder systems. Emergency department staff , police and fire and rescue- all of whom are oftentimes the first point of contact for someone at risk- can operate from a place of misinformation and prejudgment. For example, an assumption that someone is “just attention seeking,” may result in them not receiving the care they need, potentially leading to tragic results.
Stigma can also manifest itself in systemic ways. The fight to build a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge and the decades-long opposition to this is one example. Although cost and aesthetics were cited as the main reasons, stigma played a huge role both in pushback from the general public and how it impacted legislation.
The stigma of suicide can affect mental health professionals and cause fear, discomfort, and inaccurate information when working with a person at risk. This, in turn, can lead the professional to undertake interventions which are inappropriate, unnecessary and often involuntary. These interventions may then perpetuate the stigma that the person at risk experiences.
Stigma can be seen in the language we use when talking about suicide. The word “committed” is pejorative and a vestige from long ago when suicide was viewed as a crime and a sin. The preferred term to use is “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide”.
Media coverage can perpetuate stigma by presenting misconceptions about suicide, romanticizing or oversimplifying it.
Any one of us can be touched by suicide and it is one of the most preventable types of death. Lives can be saved from suicide by increasing our awareness and understanding; dispelling myths and misconceptions; recognizing and challenging stigma; and reaching out to those vulnerable and at-risk.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. For more information please visit: