Suicide and mental health have been taboo for ages. Tomes have been written about their respective histories. Much of it depressing and even gruesome. People who committed suicide were shunned and often the body was desecrated. Dante left a special place in hell for those who died by their own hand. They became trees who were constantly eaten by harpies, the only inhabitants to be denied their human forms. In some places services were held for the survivors, but not the victim. Sometimes bodies were buried with the a stake through their hearts, at a crossroads so the body couldn’t make its way back home. These archaic practices have lasted well into the 21st century. Until 1993, suicide was illegal in Ireland. In her book Night Falls Fast, Kay Jamison writes, “The harshness of centuries-old views of suicide still touches the present, both in social policy and in more personal ways” (18). In her estimation, these age-old links still inform our beliefs, which we can see clearly when we encounter the stigma around mental health and suicide.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Oh I tried to kill myself.”
“Sorry to hear that! How are you doing now?”
“Very well thank you! And you?”
“My anxiety has been flaring up but otherwise I’m good, thanks!”
This is the sort of exchange that I wish could happen more readily. It should be as easy as that. I bet most people don’t even know why mental health is taboo. I don’t know if I could tell you, aside from saying long-standing views on psychology have likely influenced social opinion, and we’ve developed cultural biases. Crazy people have always occupied liminal spaces: between reality and fantasy, on the fringes of society. Even in 2017 we are not immune to this historical bias. Consider the population of homeless people and how it overlaps with the mentally ill.
It seems like the best way to combat stigma is by speaking out and educating people. I’ve said this before but humans really like explanations. If someone can explain how they’re feeling when they’re in an episode or suicidal, and say it without fear of reprisal, then it gives others the opportunity to learn and really understand, in turn making them less “afraid” of the subject.
Kay Jamison believes that part of what confuses people about suicide is that we can answer a lot of questions about suicide: where, when, how, who, etc. But we cannot really answer why. This is one reason that suicide remains so taboo, I think: it is simply incomprehensible to most people. And unless the person left a note, you may never know the reasons why. This is scary and traumatizing.
As someone who’s been on both sides of the suicide line, I know how mind-blowingly dark things can get. Depression that just oozes despair and hopelessness. Thoughts dragging you out of this world and into the next. But I also know how it is from the other side, trying to explain to someone that they have something to live for, and not knowing why they don’t understand you. The two states are antithetical. It is difficult to want to die and have hope at the same time. Not impossible, but difficult.
So I understand why people have a tough time talking about suicide. It simply doesn’t make sense. But suicide is a fact, going back eons, probably as long as humans or our ancestors have been around. And we need to deal with troubling facts. Like that 800,000 people die by suicide every year. In the US it’s about 40,000. Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability. We need to talk about this. If we want to begin to curb this trend, we need to talk to each, to listen, to understand, to take care of one of another, to accept that suicide is an option people feel like they can take, and do. We need to start stopping the stigma.
The good news is a lot of people are trying to do this. I can’t even list all of the organizations I’ve encountered that are devoted to doing just what I’ve been discussing. It is heartwarming and gives me hope. I hope my stories help even a little bit to shine some light into someone’s darkness. You are not alone.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Jamison’s book:
“Suicide is a particularly awful way to die: the mental suffering leading up to it is usually prolonged, intense, and unpalliated. There is no morphine equivalent to ease the acute pain, and death not commonly is violent and grisly. The suffering of the suicidal is private and inexpressible, leaving family members, friends, and colleagues to deal with an almost unfathomable kind of loss, as well as guilt. Suicide carries in its aftermath a level of confusion and devastation that is, for the most part, beyond description” (24).
If you are feeling suicidal, please see my Resources page at the top. You can feel better!