It’s a handy social construct to avoid dealing with things we’d rather not.
Having lost a child to suicide, my family joined the ranks of “those people.” Those in our society best kept at a distance; individuals who have been to prison, or have grown up on the welfare system, or have mental health issues. The former prisoner is judged and shunned regardless of success at rehabilitation; the young person whose address on an application results in exclusion despite scholastic success; the child with a developmental delay denied access to a playgroup without consideration of their gentleness and playfulness.
Stigma is the preordained judgment about a situation we likely have not encountered, that is being experienced by people we have likely not met. It involves a shaming, a holding people in disgrace; people best to keep some distance from, inhibiting their full participation in society.
Almost 50 years after suicide was decriminalized, the stigma continues to prevail. It could be that the stigma against suicide might have served as a deterrent, might have prevented suicide from being on the list of available solutions, might have saved some lives. But any deterrent value has vaporized. The generations old taboo on discussing and reporting of suicide has been lifted, at least to the extent that suicide can be brought into public discourse when a significant event occurs that seemingly cannot be ignored. An important realization however, is that most discussions in the media tend to lack meaningful purpose. When a news anchor or editorialist reports on a suicide, there is often insufficient understanding of the situation to present a purposeful and informed report. A very complex situation is summarily dismissed with a statement about drugs or depression. Reporting a suicide for the sake of newsworthiness, causes harm and does not further the public good.
What we discuss and how we discuss suicide needs to be considered. When I state that I choose not to discuss some aspects of my son’s suicide, it is because there is no profit in discussing it beyond generalities, as the revealing of specifics can provoke strong emotions and paint awful scenarios that are totally unnecessary, having no purpose beyond sensationalism. Much of the acceptance of suicide being openly presented in the public sphere has not evolved out of public discussion, but from the proliferation of portrayals in crime TV series, such as the sobering image of a person having hanged themselves, or a dramatic blood splatter on the wall from a self inflicted gun shot. These portrayals are a relatively new phenomenon, unimaginable half a century ago, implied in films of recent decades, a common place image today. They are not likely to any longer cause significant discomfort or shock in the viewer. It is pure speculation, but the normalization of these images could be a contributor to the normalizing of suicide in the minds of our youth. This phenomenon may have generated a certain fascination or genuine interest in suicide but hasn’t necessarily countered entrenched stigma.
At first, I was not aware of experiencing the stigma of being the father of a teen suicide. In a bizarre way, I didn’t perceive any stigma for quite some time until a discussion with a friend about Zachary’s death revealed the community feeling shame of what happened in our household and the assumed failure I had been in fathering. The insidious part of stigma is that nobody overtly shamed me. It was during empathetic conversations, conversations meant to comfort me, that I heard revealing statements such as “something had to have gone really wrong,” which interpreted, I think correctly, to mean in our home and with our parenting.
I stopped disclosing my personal angst, and only spoke generally of our family’s loss. Socially, others rarely initiated the subject, and usually deflected the conversation should my thoughts be drifting in that direction. I’m aware how difficult these conversations can be, and the challenge that people face in filtering their thoughts, not wanting to say something that would hurt me. So I silenced myself. Stigma ferments in the shame and silence of sufferers and survivors, and brews in the anxiety and ignorance of everyone else.
Somewhere in the process of coming to terms with our situation, I stopped talking about suicide in the abstract and started talking about my son. I am not ashamed of Zac. He made me proud in his life; that has not changed in his death. The too bright kid, the rascal, the caring Zac whose pain often overwhelmed those caring for him.
Through a series of events that I only summarize as “God opened doors for me that I didn’t and wouldn’t have knocked on”, it was back to school in my late fifties. Employment in a community agency followed, first working with guys in a federal halfway house, then counselling folks in crisis, many with mental health and addiction issues. In discussion with my peers, I began to speak plainly about suicide. Yet, for a number of years, when parenting discussions occurred at work or in our social group, I felt compelled to remain silent. What right did I have to join in a discussion about raising kids? What could the father of a child who decided death was better than the life he had in our home contribute to any conversation? A very gifted therapist in our crisis clinic commented on my going quiet during these discussions, noting that normally I have lots to say. It was a relief to disclose to her my sense of having no right to speak, the feeling of having nothing of value to offer in these discussions about family. She said, “You couldn’t be more wrong. You have exceedingly valuable information to contribute, stuff people should listen to.”
Stigma alienates, injures, wounds, divides, and is found just about everywhere. It can infect the attitude and thinking of health professionals, as we discovered on our journey with Zac. Working with youth and adults who are at risk, one becomes aware that people with mental health issues are not always afforded the dignity someone with chest pain or the flu might when accessing the health care system. Is it a paradox that medically assisted death (suicide) is increasingly perceived, at least in the media, to be a humane and merciful way of addressing unbearable suffering, yet a suicide of the DIY variety is regarded with contempt?
In perhaps its most damaging form, stigma silences meaningful discourse with “those people,” the family and intimate friends of loved ones struggling with their mental health. This silencing ensures we will remain ill prepared to prevent preventable suicides.
My hope is that these articles, in offering some close up observations of the baffling nature of youth suicide, will encourage more voices to speak out against the stigma that contributes to so much suffering.