- Posted by Kristin Thompson
- On January 27, 2019
- 0 Comments
Stigma and Suicide
There is so much stigma, fear, and pain attached to suicide that many people dare not say its name. I don’t fault those who avoid naming suicide. Instead I fault society and social conditioning for teaching us to treat suicide as unspeakable or shameful.
If we can’t acknowledge suicide when a person has died, then how can the living expect to talk openly with friends and family about their urges to end their life? It’s awfully hard to help suicidal people – and for them to ask for help – if we treat suicide as if it is a dirty word.
Avoiding the Question
Many people are too scared to talk directly about suicide – even some therapists. In 2014, I worked for Third Level Crisis Intervention Center in Traverse City, Michigan where I learned the difference between asking if someone is at risk of harming themselves vs. thinking about suicide.
Some come right out with it and ask: “Are you thinking of suicide?” “Do you think of killing yourself?”
Others ask, “How has your sleep been lately?” “Are you depressed?” “Do you think of hurting yourself?” Those questions will help you learn if someone’s sleeping poorly, depressed, or thinking of hurting themselves – not if someone’s thinking of suicide. Perhaps the conversation will lead there. Perhaps not.
“Hurt yourself” is a euphemism that some people use for suicide. Instead of asking, “Do you want to kill yourself?” they might ask, “Do you want to hurt yourself?” Yet there are people who intentionally hurt themselves without wanting to die. There are also people who desperately want to die and view suicide not as a means to hurt oneself, but to stop hurting. So the person’s answer to “Do you want to hurt yourself?” might not mean what you think it does.
Fears of Asking about Suicidal Thoughts
Why don’t people ask directly about suicide? They may fear that talking directly about suicide gives others the idea (it doesn’t). Or they might consider it impolitic to name suicide, because of the stigma attached to it. Or they might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, or of angering the person, or of being unable to help.
These are all legitimate fears. It’s scary to ask someone about suicidal thoughts. But avoiding the topic does not make the problem go away. It drives it underground, where a suicidal person may feel even more alone in the darkness.
If you’re worried about saying the right or wrong thing – that’s okay! Acknowledge it -because it means you care! You can say something like, “I don’t know how to comfort you right now, but just know that I need you here.” It’s a great place to start!
Ways to Help Suicidal People
To truly foster open, constructive conversations about suicide — to create an environment where people can ask for help from loved ones and professionals — we must actually name it. Only then can more suicidal people feel welcome to reveal their thoughts.
Only if we name suicide can we reach out to those we worry about and ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?” And then we can truly listen and join with the suicidal person.
There are specific techniques for asking a person about suicidal thoughts that can lessen the potential for stigma, shame, and discomfort. One way is to convey that the person is not weird or wrong to have suicidal thoughts: “Sometimes people who feel as crappy as you do have thoughts of killing themselves. Do you?”
Talking about Suicide
Once potential helpers can talk openly about suicide, it opens the door to conversations that can lead to help, hope, and healing.
Don’t be afraid of asking for help! In these moments, they’ll likely need more support and resources than you’re able to offer. Ask for them to come with you to the counselor’s office at school, reach out to their immediate family members, or talk to a local crisis counselor.
Remember, most suicidal people are ambivalent about attempting or committing suicide. A part of them may be looking of an out – while the other part of them just can’t imagine going on like they are. This is an opening to get them the help they need. There is no shame in needing help!
If you think of suicide, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK), texting the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or reaching out to local crisis centers: Ozone at (734) 662-2222.