Confronting the stigma of suicide

According to the World Health Organization, suicide claims the life of one person every 40 seconds around the globe. These figures are unbelievably tragic––not only in the sheer immensity of the lives lost, but in the fact that suicide is preventable. In light of the unexpected suicide of comedic legend Robin Williams and World Suicide Prevention Day occurring Wednesday Sept. 10, it is imperative that the emerging discussions about suicide and mental health do not just go away––they need to continue in order to truly make a difference.

One of the most evident problems is a lack of societal understanding and compassion toward those diagnosed with mental illness. Many people do not grasp the impact of mental health disorders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delineates this problem of stigma, stating that when a person with mental illness cannot perform a task, other people often perceive this as a flaw in character rather than a result of their condition.

According to a recent World Health Organization report, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the international 15-29 age demographic. It is upsetting, yet unsurprising that this age demographic is plagued with suicides. This period of time is meant for navigating through outside influences and obstacles in an attempt to truly come to find ourselves and find happiness. How the hell is someone with a mental disorder supposed to feel comfortable with his or herself if he or she is bombarded with messages that he or she should feel ashamed for something beyond his or her control?

The negative stigma surrounding mental health issues and suicide is a huge problem. Society regards those with mental health issues as selfish or weak. Renowned actress and mental health advocate Glenn Close emphasized this issue, saying, “The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance.”

This stigma leads to suffering individuals being too afraid or ashamed to ask for help, which may worsen their disorder and any resulting suicidal thoughts.

Fox News anchor Shephard Smith called Williams “a coward” just hours after news broke of the beloved actor’s suicide. Smith's is exactly the kind of ignorance that perpetuates stigma by reinforcing the idea that suicide is selfish and its victims are weak. Would anyone dare to call a person fighting cancer cowardly? If not, then negative labels should not be acceptable for people battling mental illness.

Marginalizing individuals who struggle with illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety creates an incredibly dangerous environment. Mental Health Reporting states that more than 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Those diagnosed with mental disorders live in a climate of harmful judgments that ostracize them for something they did not choose. As a result, society can easily push people over the brink of anguish into suicide.

I believe that because suicide is such a complex issue––not at all “black and white”––it can be hard for people to talk about. Talking about suicide and mental health requires a vulnerability and honesty regarding the spectrum of human emotion that isn’t commonplace in our culture. We need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and suicide so people know they are not alone in their struggle. They need to know that they are loved, accepted and supported and that there are so many beautiful reasons to stay alive.