How we can do our Part to Remove the Stigma
by John Zettler
These past couple weeks have been some of the most difficult of my life, in fact as I write this article all the emotions I’ve felt are flooding back.
Over the Canada Day long-weekend we lost a dear friend who committed suicide. Like many suicides, as I now know through research, it seemed to have happened out of the blue. Just the weekend prior, we were all together as friends planning an upcoming big birthday celebration for this person and she seemed happy, excited, relaxed and normal.
Sadly, that’s not uncommon. “Many people who commit suicide do so without letting on they are thinking about it or planning it,” says Dr. Michael Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
We’ll never know why she did what she did, but as information comes in about what was happening for her in her final weeks and months, we can only assume that it must have felt like the walls were closing in so fast that she had no other choice. Please don’t misunderstand me, this article is not advocating for suicides, but instead, it’s a plea to have an authentic discussion when it comes to depression, mental illness, and suicide.
On that note, what I want to talk about is what happened in the aftermath of finding out what happened. I’ve witnessed first-hand each of the stages of the grieving process – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. I too have gone through all these stages.
The one that I want to focus on for a bit more is anger. First, let me share what the anger phase means. The following comes from https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/ and is based on the book “On Grief and Grieving – Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler.
“Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal…At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure – – your anger towards them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing…”
Powerful words that have helped me to understand where my own anger has come from.
Anger, in suicide especially, makes it so easy to focus on the negative about our lost loved one and to put blame there. I was trying to put the following in my own words to discuss this even more, and as part of my research, I found this and thought it perfectly articulated what I wanted to say.
“Once we all really knew this was a suicide and not foul play, it didn’t take long before the talk was “suicide is never the answer,” “suicide is selfish,” and “pray your pain away” mantras as solutions to depression, mental illness, and feelings of suicide.
Saying “suicide isn’t the answer” is easily one of the most insensitive statements made by people who have minimal understanding of the intersections of depression, mental illness, and constant feelings that the world would be a better place without you. Is depression proof-positive of suicide attempts or successes? No. However, the two can be inextricably-linked.
Unfortunately, there’s still linear-thinking when it comes to suicide and those who may attempt it. Even on Twitter, people were very vocal about their feelings of suicide:
All too often, there’s a deflection when it comes to honest discussions of suicide and attempts. Suicide is not for the “weak” and it’s not for people who don’t know how to cope. In fact, many people who commit (or attempt) suicide do so because they genuinely think life-and the world-would be better without them…” – Preston Mitchum
So, here’s what really stood out for me. As we’ve all gone through our grieving process I’m sure that there have been words similar to what’s been stated above. The problem though is that these types of statements only increase the stigma that having a mental illness or being depressed isn’t ok. Imagine this for a moment. If any of the hundreds of people that were around us over the past couple of weeks suffered from a mental illness themselves, what’s the chance that they will now come out and tell people that they’re struggling, or ask for help? I’m not an expert, but my guess would be that it’s unlikely.
Listen, I’m never going to tell anyone how to grieve, what I do hope is that this article makes you consider how your word impacts others positively or negatively – regardless of whether it’s a situation like I’ve described above. We all have an opportunity to make this stigma go away and make it ok for people to not only have a mental illness, but also to talk about it. So, my challenge is: do what you can, to start the dialogue and be the change!
Finally, we’ve all asked the questions of “what could we have done,” “why didn’t we see this coming”, etc. so I want to leave you with yet another article I found on behaviours that might indicate the risk of suicide in your loved ones (adapted from HelpGuide.org):
- Talking about suicide: Statements like “I’d be better off dead” or “If I see you again…,”
- Seeking the means: Trying to get access to guns, pills, or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
- No hope for the future: Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being trapped, or believing that things will never get better.
- Self-loathing: Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame, and self-hatred.
- Getting affairs in order: Giving away prized possessions or making arrangements for family members.
- Saying goodbye: Unusual or unexpected visits or calls to family and friends; saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again.
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