Stigma is Killing Us

By Carly WestJuly 8, 2024

Definition of Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.

Synonyms of Stigma: stain, taint, guilt, shame, blot, slur, smudge, disgrace

Antonyms of Stigma: credit, award, honor, purity, modest, chastity, right, legitimacy, integrity

It’s interesting to see the definition, synonyms, and antonyms of a word, isn’t it?

We hear the word “stigma” all the time. Many of us have likely experienced this word in some form or another in our lives. But when you take away the layered, perhaps intimidating word, and replace it with synonyms, it hits different. Doesn’t it?

There is a stigma in the US and much of the world when it comes to mental illness, mental health, and suicide. There are often assumptions, perceptions, pity, anger, sorrow, shame, and judgment attached to many of these issues, realities, and the people themselves who are suffering. I’ve often hesitated to share my story for this reason.

I’ve gone through a range of emotions, reactions, and roles as they relate to my own mental health story… grief, sadness, anger, guilt, outrage, champion, spokesperson, chairperson, person on the sidelines, and person in the shadows.

And now I want to share my, or rather my dad’s, story with you. My sister, my mom, my brother, my husband, and so many of our friends and family members lost my father to suicide on September 8, 2008. 15 years ago. Our lives were forever changed.

I promise I’ll keep the background brief, but it’s important to set the stage. I truly had the ideal childhood. I mean, it’s hard to describe how magical my parents (mostly dad, mom in agreement) made my life! All the holidays—over the top in ways it’s hard to describe. We did the beach vacations and the Disney trips. You name it, my parents made sure we did it. Donuts and gumballs on Saturday mornings. Guitar and record playing sessions on Sundays. Camping trips for the scrapbook. Truly, he was the best a kid could hope for.

My dad was a magical and magnetic person. He never met a stranger he didn’t befriend and had a larger-than-life personality. He also had issues with alcohol and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his forties. Toward the end of his life, he developed a substance misuse problem as he attempted to self-medicate. My mom, my sister, and I watched and supported him through many trials. My parents paid out of pocket for several rehab stays. But even with that support, he always felt shame.

At 54, my dad seemingly felt that we were better off without him. I can only assume that his struggles and problems outweighed his value and worth in his mind. The stigma he experienced came with guilt and shame and many other things. My interpretation is, that he decided that because of his mental illness and addiction, he was just an addict or mentally ill rather than the magnanimous person we saw.  He let the stigma or the disgrace that came with some of his actions outweigh or even stain and blot out his true self. He felt those missteps or challenges defined him so deeply that there was nothing left to redeem him.

The reality is that to me, my sister, my mom, and SO many other people—he was one of the most valuable and amazing things in our lives.  He deserves honor for all the wonderful moments he made happen in my life. He deserves credit for my work ethic, creativity, love of music (and Matchbox Twenty—IYKYK), and ability to take care of myself.  He had the right to live and he should have. In our minds, the stigma he felt and carried didn’t deserve to hold genuine weight. To this day, I’d trade almost anything to have him back. The world, our worlds, my world is NOT better without him. I just wish he could have seen it that way.

The point is, the value of life is real and the stigma associated with mental health and suicide has to change.

Most of us personally struggle or know several people in our lives struggling with some type of mental health challenge. What if as a society we replaced all the gut-wrenching and isolating words like stigma and its synonyms with their antonyms? What if we instead brought compassion and grace to the table? Would it be a world where my dad would still be? I think so and I hope so.

Whatever you are facing, there is always hope. And we will hold on to hope until you’re able to grasp it yourself. If you’re thinking about suicide, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.

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Comments (8)

  1. Colleen

    Thank you for sharing your very personal story. You inspire hope and I think your dad would be so very proud of you.

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  2. Dave

    Carly, this is so beautifully written. Deeply true in every word. I wish we had been able to reach inside and help with his pain.

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  3. Ann

    I cried reading this. I struggle with depression and self worth and there are a lot of days that it’s so hard to fight. And the stigma is so real. There is a song I’ve been listening to recently and there is a line in it at says “ I am not okay,
    I’m hanging on the rails,
    So if I say I’m fine,
    Just know I learned to hide it well”
    You learn to hide it so well because people either don’t understand or just want to show pity or treat up like you are less than or something broken.
    Thank you for sharing. I know I’m a not alone but most days it does feel so lonely.
    I am sorry for your loss

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  4. Alyssa Nash

    Thank you for sharing your story Carly. Sending so much love your way. Thank you for speaking on the truth and what sigma has done to your family.

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  5. Diane L Colopy

    Carly, What a beautiful soul you have! Your story has so much importance, love, and compassion. Thank you, your Dad is smiling.

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  6. Brad Hadden

    Well stated. It’s so prevalent in society today. I believe there’s a process. Judgement by others, self reflection, self judgement, self condemnation. People have become so vulnerable to the judgement of others, especially younger people. I’m 67 now and I succumbed to it at 13 and attempted suicide. It’s nothing new, it just seems the has gotten a little colder. Praying.

    Reply  |  
  7. Tandy

    Thank you for your blog post. This was beautiful, inspiring, and informative. I too wish the world would bring compassion and grace to mental health. The stigma that is around mental health is exhausting and I wish people would understand that their words, attitude, and support (or lack thereof) really affects others.

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  8. Whitney

    Your story is so so similar to mine. I lost my wonderful father to suicide in 2007. He was the best man I have ever known. Everyone loved him so much! He struggled with loving himself. He was dyslexic, and I think that affected him emotionally and mentally from a very young age. And he always carried that shame. He struggled with addiction as an adult, but was the best father. He was such a great friend, just the of guy that lights up a room. But I don’t think he ever felt that. I miss him so so much! Thank you for sharing your story and shedding some light on what stigma is doing to our society in a way more people can understand. Your story is so powerful, and I want you to know that in your sharing I feel seen, and I see you. I know the loss never gets easier, as more milestones are met in adulthood the loss feels even greater. Their absence at important things is felt immensely. I have a 2 year old son, and we named him after my dad. And he has helped me heal a bit. He is so much like my dad. He has a great smile!! He is funny! Of course, he is beautiful just like my dad. And I will always let him know, feelings and struggles are never anything to be ashamed of or to feel guilty about. Stigma about mental health does not exist in our house. And that is my redemption! My chance to make a change. Thank you for sharing your story to the world. And thank you for SEEING me. ❤️

    Reply  |  
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