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POV: It’s Time to Destigmatize Suicide

New approaches needed to help those at risk

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Thoughts of suicide have been a constant presence in my life ever since I was 15 years old, sitting in my bedroom with an assortment of pills cupped in my hands. That day was the first time, but not the last, I came close to losing my life to suicide.

Until recently, this part of my history was known only to a few very close friends. Because I knew that there is a stigma associated with suicide, I avoided sharing these experiences and very rarely discussed my suicidality.

Tomorrow, November 19, is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, an ideal time to discuss ways to destigmatize the subject. Although there have been efforts by the World Health Organization and other organizations to reduce the stigma of suicide, the complexity of the problem has limited success. Combating this requires new approaches and the participation of many more people.

Discussions about suicide are needed now more than ever. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention puts the number of Americans who die from suicide each year at over 42,000, and the number of those attempting suicide at 25 for every death. Altogether, that is enough people to populate the entire city of Boston over 1.5 times per year.

Death from suicide affects all races, genders, and ages, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the suicide rate increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014.

Because of the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, these statistics are likely underreported.

In the September 9, 2015, issue of U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention, is quoted as saying, “Stigma prevents people from seeking out help….People experiencing suicidal thoughts, or mental health issues in general, may worry that disclosure could affect their insurance coverage or future employment potential.”

These kinds of concerns apply to college students, who might worry that disclosing suicidal thoughts or past actions could prevent their receiving an internship or teaching, research, or scholarship opportunities. These fears can cause those struggling with suicidality to avoid talking about their experiences and prevent their seeking help.

One of the first steps needed to reduce suicide’s stigma involves changing the language used when talking about the topic. In a TEDx talk titled Why We Choose Suicide, mental health advocate Mark Henick makes this observation: “One way that we can help is to stop saying that people commit suicide… Nobody has committed suicide in this country since the early 1970s, when suicide was decriminalized. And that’s because suicide is a public health concern, not a criminal one.”

People who struggle with suicidality generally experience shame regarding their thoughts and actions. According to the website Speaking of Suicide, shame, “an internal feeling of disgrace,” is different from stigma, which “comes from outside the person [and] is a mark or message of disgrace.” Certainly, describing suicide using language connoting criminal activity and not a health concern contributes to shame and stigma. Therefore, a simple act like replacing the phrase “someone committed suicide” with “someone died from suicide” can help to change how we discuss and view the issue.

For those who have never experienced or been affected by concerns of suicide, the most important thing to do is to become educated on the subject. Learn the warning signs of suicide, what to do if you suspect someone is at risk of suicide, and what organizations you can get involved in.

Ultimately, the people who can do the most to dispel the stigma of suicide are those who have struggled with it. Our greatest tool in fighting this stigma lies in sharing our own stories. By talking about our experiences, we can show that people affected by suicidality are not dangerous and are still able to contribute to society. Although talking about the subject is uncomfortable and awkward, those who can share their stories should. Anyone discussing their experiences with suicide should do so on their own terms in whatever way works for them: it does not need to be shared with everyone, and it does not need to be forced into every conversation.

So I’ll begin: since I was 15 years old, I’ve come close to dying from suicide four times. I have struggled with mental illness. Although the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide prevented me from seeking treatment for eight years, I now regularly go to a therapist. I started attending therapy almost a year ago after I began telling my close friends my story and realized that stigma shouldn’t prevent me from seeking treatment.

Mental health professionals are always focused on the best interests and happiness of their patients, but are able to examine their patients’ lives from an objective viewpoint and give their patients insights and help they would not otherwise get. By attending therapy, I’ve begun an important process of self-discovery: to learn how the events in my past, whether I thought them significant or not, have shaped who I am, how I interact with the world, and how these interactions affect how I feel. Armed with this knowledge from therapy, I have become more able to take actions which make my life happier and more meaningful.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are affected by suicidality, and as more and more people change the language they use, become better educated about the topic, and start talking about their own experiences, the stigma of suicide will continue to lessen and you will truly start realizing that you are not alone.

If you believe you are immediately at risk of suicide, call 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential help. You can also contact the Samaritans Statewide Hotline at 1-877-870-4673.

Individual counseling support for BU students, faculty, and staff, on campus or abroad, can be arranged at any time through the following resources:

  • Marsh Chapel chaplains can be reached at 617-353-3560.
  • Behavioral Medicine providers at Student Health Services can be reached at 617-353-3569.
  • Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center (SARP) counselors can be reached at 617-353-SARP (7277).
  • Counseling is also available for faculty and staff through the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office, 617-353-5381.
  • Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, 617-353-9610.
  • Disability Services, 617-353-3658

Cristian Morales (ENG’16,’21) can be reached at crism@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.eduBU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.

5 Comments

5 Comments on POV: It’s Time to Destigmatize Suicide

  • Karen Brouhard on 11.18.2016 at 7:29 am

    Cristian,
    Thank you for having the courage to share your experience in the service of raising awareness about this important issue. Your contribution to destigmatizing suicide may well save lives. Your testimony on the benefit you’ve received from psychotherapy gives hope to others who are suffering and encourages them to seek help for themselves. Thank you, BU Today, for identifying campus resources including the Faculty & Staff Assistance Office which offers free and confidential counseling with licensed behavioral health providers for all faculty, staff and their family members. Karen Brouhard, LICSW Counselor, Boston University Faculty & Staff Assistance Office

  • Katharine on 11.18.2016 at 8:19 am

    Thank you so much for writing this POV, Cristian! I agree with you that we need to foster a culture that destigmatizes suicide and supports folks struggling with mental health issues. Your voice in this movement is powerful and inspiring!

  • Jane on 11.18.2016 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing your powerful story Cristian. You have touched many souls and opened the door for others to share their struggles.

  • Harold A. Maio on 11.18.2016 at 2:23 pm

    Please do not participate in abetting people who direct stigmas.

  • Jack on 11.18.2016 at 11:09 pm

    Hi Cristian,

    Really great piece on such an important subject. It’s not fair that changing stigma has to come, even in part, from those stigmatized but it is absolutely wonderful that you are a part of making that change and helping others to do so as well. It can make all the difference in the world.

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