Suicide rates have risen sharply and steadily in the last two decades. According to AFSP, about 43,000 people in the U.S. die by suicide each year, and for each completed suicide there are 25 suicide attempts. This means that every 12 minutes one person dies by suicide, and every 38 seconds one person attempts to take their life. And these numbers are believed to be underestimated, because of the stigma surrounding the issue of suicide and perpetuating silence.
Stigma – that monster that starts with prejudice grown out of fear, which almost immediately takes over a whole town, a whole nation, the whole society at large, and looms over us all, keeping the truth away from us. Because when the truth is difficult to face, when the truth might show something we don’t like, something that makes us feel uncomfortable and with which we do not agree, it’s much easier to believe the stigma and go on with our lives, unaffected. And so when we hear that someone has died by suicide, we do not openly ask and talk about it. We might briefly wonder why the person decided to take their life or why they felt so misunderstood, silenced, and hopeless, but we do not ask. We do not, under any circumstances, mention the word suicide and openly discuss it, nor do we discuss the mental illness that most likely led the person to seeing suicide as their only option. We do not, because we were not taught it is acceptable to do so. We were instead taught to simply feel a moment of sympathy, then turn away. And this is what stigma does. It tells us that we might be entering an uncomfortable discussion and that the best is to leave it be. It tells us that it’s easier to explain it all away by thinking that the person who died by suicide was somehow weak, or selfish for not thinking about how what they were doing would affect others. And this is how, in turn, victim blaming starts.
But stigma has surrounded every illness. The plague was in the past erroneously blamed on the poor. And depression and suicidal ideation is today erroneously blamed on the “weak”. But the longer we continue to keep away the truth – the truth that people who consider suicide are not weak but rather affected by mental illness such as depression – the longer suicide attempts will be on the rise. If we haven’t ourselves had a mental illness and thought of suicide as an option, we may be able to ignore the issue and go on with our lives, unaffected. Except we are not, in fact, unaffected – because mental illness can happen to anyone and because it does not affect just the person who considers suicide, but also everyone who ever cared about them. So if millions of people are affected by suicide, isn’t it time we ended the stigma of suicide and mental health? Isn’t it time we started bringing the issue out into the light, asking questions, talking about it, and discussing it openly, so that the people affected by it might not feel silenced, but rather start to feel that it is alright to address it, to speak up and to seek help?
Breaking the silence and ending the stigma might be the only way to bring about change, because mental illness is not something that signals a weakness, not something that defines one, and not something one is – rather, just like physical illness, mental illness is something that happens to one. And just like physical illness, mental illness can be treated. If our body is aching no one is judging us for seeking medical help. Shouldn’t it be the same if we have a mental ailment?
Defeating the stigma starts now. On September 10th, World Suicide Awareness Day, we can all come together and start breaking the stigma of mental health and suicide by registering for Move Together for Hope, and walking, dancing, running, moving in any way, to show our support and help raise funds for training volunteers to become certified in suicide prevention and crisis intervention. We will move together for so many who were lost to suicide, and we will move together to bring hope and help to thousands of others who still feel silenced because of the stigma today. We will move together to start showing the world that whereas fear and prejudice lead to stigma, knowledge will lead to understanding, empathy, and help. And in moving together, we can bring about hope and change together, one move at a time.
For more information about Move Together For Hope, a virtual 5k movement to raise awareness about mental health and suicide, please visit movetogetherforhope.wordpress.com