The technical definition of the word “stigma” is “a mark of infamy, a mark of disgrace.” And one of the greatest (perhaps the greatest) stigma in our society exists in the area of mental health, with struggles like addiction, depression, and certainly suicide. A discussion of the subject of suicide brings about strong reactions, sometimes of anger, judgment, ridicule, shame, or even a sense of callousness or apathy toward those who have, currently do, or will struggle with it. Why such a strong and negative response?
Of course, a main reason is because there is nothing of more importance than life and death, and to engage the possibility of someone we know (or even ourselves) ending one’s own life evokes strong emotions and responses. Yet, the stigma, this mark of disgrace, is something that extends far beyond our own personal responses. It is something we often live out as a community, a society, and a culture. While so much progress has been made, suicide and the area of mental health are still topics we are not supposed to talk about; they are struggles society tells us we should keep hidden, or else risk the hurtful and damaging responses from those around us. If we stay silent, though, how do we ever get the help we need? If we do not talk about these things with those around us, how will we encourage them that recovery really does happen? As these things continue to happen in silence, it often seems difficult to heal from struggles we are not even able to admit are there.
Stigma in our world is not a new thing at all, but has always existed, attached to different populations over the years, driven by the lies we believe and the fear that those lies create. With the HIV-positive community in decades past, the stigma was propelled by lies such as the belief that HIV could be contracted through a handshake or that only the lowest people in society contracted it. These lies fed fears that created a horrible stigma toward the community, preventing people from getting help, receiving treatment, or even being able to be honest with friends and family about what they were battling.
There is often a similar experience in our world today in the area of suicide and mental health. We believe lies that “it is impossible to stop someone who wants to take their life” or that “those who struggle with thoughts of suicide, depression, or addiction never get better,” among others. We make the false judgment that those who struggle are selfish, lazy, or just do not want to change. The truth is that suicide is the most preventable kind of death, and that thoughts of suicide, depression, and addiction are all areas where recovery is possible. Those who struggle are no different than those who do not, as these issues are not partial to “weak or bad” people—just anyone who is human.
With a subject so important as suicide, we often cannot help but feel the fear of losing someone we love or of losing control of ourselves. We fear we will not know what to say to help someone we care about. We fear we will not recover if we slip into depression or addiction. We fear that feeling of being lost, hopeless, not knowing how to help ourselves or those we love. My friend Rich said once that in his friendships, he did not want to be fixed, but simply related to. Would we be less fearful if we knew that it is okay to not have all the answers for ourselves or those we care about? Would we feel comforted if we were able to have relationships that walked with us through the dark times, even if they did not know how to fix them? Perhaps it is in times of being hopeless that we desperately need to borrow hope from someone else, and that hope seems to come most in compassion, understanding, and encouragement.
If we want to battle the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health, like we are attempting to do through things like National Suicide Prevention Week, then we have much work to do. It begins with conversations filled with care, with love and wisdom. Begin to ask yourself and your community what you believe about suicide and mental health. What are the lies, the bitter, hurtful beliefs we hold regarding those who have or will walk these paths? What are the truths that we need to shine light on? What are the fears we hold, both individually and as a society? How do they keep us from engaging those around us in compassionate conversations? Finally, how do we fight through those fears to remind ourselves, our friends, and our families of the truth? How do we encourage them toward healing, recovery, counseling, or maybe just an honest, caring conversation?
Perhaps when we have traveled down this road for a while—battling lies, embracing truth, and creating a compassionate, understanding society for each other—asking for help and finding recovery will be much easier and happen much sooner.