Between the Lines: Suicide’s Shameful Stigma

Suicide is the epitome of hopelessness. It’s a last resort for people who believe that there is no chance of life improving. Options for help can seem unavailable or unfathomable.

If there is an antidote for suicide, we have yet to find it. But we can be fairly certain that sneers of “get over it” are as helpful as shouting at a drowning person to swim.

An antidote is exactly what the U.S. needs, as the suicide rate in this nation is on a steady rise. Since 2003, the suicide rate in America has grown by 4.2 percent annually. Overall, 5,100 people in Massachusetts killed themselves between 2003 and 2012, according to the Winter 2015 Suicides and Self-inflicted Injuries in Massachusetts Data Summary produced by the Department of Public Health.

In 2012, there were 624 suicides in the state. This elevated the suicide rate from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2003 to 9.4 deaths. Suicide isn’t just a problem in the U.S. According to the World Health Organization, it is the third leading cause of death worldwide.

Despite this growing health concern, care and services for suicidal people and their loved ones are seriously lacking. This probably has a lot to do with the social stigma attached to having suicidal thoughts and seeking help from loved ones or professionals. The social shame associated with suicide keeps many quiet, the WHO and state health department noted. In fact, suicides in this nation and worldwide are underreported because people will try to disguise their deaths as accidents — like a single car crash or asphyxiation —  and loved ones are often too embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed to admit that a death was a suicide. 

This needs to stop before we lose more bright, creative, caring people to self-harm. The U.S. and the world can no longer treat suicide as a taboo subject. Having suicidal thoughts does not make a person weak. Many people, at some point in their lives, consider suicide. But discussing suicidal ideation may seem horrifying. Fear of rejection, of not being taken seriously, or of being carted off to a mental hospital against one’s will conspire to keep suicidal thoughts a nightmare of one.

The first thing the state and the nation can do to crack the stigma that keeps people from seeking help is to decriminalize suicide. Calling suicide and attempted suicide a crime reinforces the stigma that suicide, and suicidal people, are dangerous and need to be punished. That’s the message being sent from the top, and until that changes, cultural attitudes about mental health and suicide are going to be slow to shift.

The next thing the state and the nation will need to do to quash this preventable and painful scourge is to start funding community mental health services. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the government’s arm in the field of suicide prevention, and it has been dialing back programs that address suicide. In 2014, for example, SAMHSA requested $50 million for suicide prevention programs — $8 million less than what they asked for in 2012, according to the TIME article “Inside the National Suicide Hotline: Preventing the Next Tragedy.”

But increased funding must be spent wisely, and when it comes to current suicide prevention, it’s mostly trial and error to see what works, with little ability to collect data on effectiveness. As the research community will acknowledge, figuring out whether an anti-suicide strategy works is difficult. Unless the suicidal person comes back to where she received services and says, “You saved my life,” there’s no way of knowing.

Right now, the country’s most visible form of suicide prevention is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which provides a person to talk to 24/7 at (800) 273-8255.

As someone who has needed to avail myself of the hotline’s services before, I can tell you that the people who pick up the phone are well-meaning but, at least in my experience, woefully unprepared to provide assistance. The last time I called the hotline, about three years ago, it was to get advice on how to help a suicidal friend, but the operator refused to believe I wasn’t suicidal. She asked me over and over again whether this “friend” I was calling for was really myself.

My friend was on the edge and I couldn’t wrangle any help from the hotline, which was disappointing. I hung up and called the Springfield police to conduct a wellness check on my friend. I’m not sure how that played out. My friend is still alive, but that night was the last time I spoke with her. I’m pretty sure that night was also the first night she reached out to anyone for help with her suicidal thoughts. But she needed help long before that and never got it because she was too afraid admitting her problem would get her locked up in a mental institution away from her children. A single mother should not feel like her only options are killing herself or suffering in silence.

Suicide is wiping out large swaths of our population. The time to sweep mental illness and suicidal thoughts out of our hearts and minds is over. Suicide should be discussed openly and without fear — it is the only way to take power away from this twisted killer. Politicians can show real leadership in this by ridding the nation of the stigma and decriminalizing suicide.•

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at editor@valleyadvocate.com.

Author: By Kristin Palpini

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