Suicide is all around us. Somebody dies by suicide every 40 seconds and it remains the second leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15–24 years old. Suicide is not a foreign concept: we hear about it on the news and many of us frequently come across facts and figures like these. These numbers become all too real when someone in our own lives dies by suicide, as is happening more and more. My own friend shared with me a few years ago that they were struggling with suicidal ideation, and I feared that statistic might become a reality. I know I am not alone in that fright; suicide is one of the most pervasive heartbreaks around the world, not bound by age, race, religion, and gender. And yet, it remains one of the most terrifying topics for so many of us to talk about.
This fear, of course, comes from a natural place. Many of us are scared to say the wrong thing or offend someone who might be struggling. We understand that suicidal thoughts are difficult and painful and may be nervous about unintentionally adding to that pain. So instead we say nothing at all. However, as Melissa Blake, a writer who lost her father to suicide says,
“Staying silent is far more damaging; it further stigmatizes suicide, which is already misunderstood and has so much judgment attached to it in the first place… Changing misconceptions and long-held stereotypes won’t happen overnight, but making the conscious decision to talk openly and honestly…is a strong start.”
So let’s talk about how to have an effective conversation around suicide. If we can figure out how to do this, hopefully over time we can chip away at the stigma and let those struggling know that they are not alone.
First, it’s important to address some harmful stereotypes surrounding suicidal ideation. If we don’t know what these look like, it will be difficult to engage in a productive conversation. Some common stigmas include:
• Suicide is a cry for help.
• Suicide is done or discussed to get attention.
• When a person decides to end his or her life, there is nothing that can be done to stop him or her.
• A person won’t die by suicide if he or she has a seemingly “good life.”
• If someone has good days or seems happy they must not be in a period of suicidal ideation.
• People who die from suicide are selfish and “taking the easy way out.”
• Talking about suicide will lead to suicide.
(For more on common suicide myths debunked, check out this article from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)
It is important when discussing suicide that we leave these dangerous misconceptions out of the conversation- they contribute to society’s sense of shame around what is a serious mental health condition, and are ultimately unproductive and offensive.
With that in mind, let’s talk about how we can discuss suicide effectively. On creating a safe space for conversation, Margie Warrell, a Forbes contributor who lost her brother to suicide, says,
“While we may not all suffer from mental illness, we each have a role to play in ensuring that those who do suffer feel less afraid to reach out and get the support they need in the moments when they need it most. If people felt as comfortable talking about their PTSD, bipolar, or anxiety as they did talking about their eczema or tennis elbow, it would markedly reduce the suffering of those with mental illness and the ability of those around them to support them.”
So, as difficult as it may be, try not to hide information about your loved one who may have passed away from suicide, or talk about the condition in a secretive manner. Don’t actively avoid the topic, or shift the conversation away from suicide, doing so only adds to the shame and stigma we assign to suicide as a society. Instead, openly talk about your own hardship or confusion surrounding the topic- we are all learning how to engage, but the engagement will never come if we don’t start somewhere.
Particularly for those of us in a place of privilege who are not experiencing suicidal ideation ourselves, we have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to those struggling to use our voice for good. I understand it is difficult, and I too struggle with finding words impactful and yet sensitive enough to discuss suicide.
As I alluded to previously, a couple of years ago, a close friend of mine shared that they were fighting with suicide ideation. At the time I often worried that my words might make them feel worse. What if I said the wrong thing? It’s easy to assume that the reason so many people are silent about their struggles is that they don’t want to talk about them. And while this might be true for some people and we should all respect each other’s boundaries, I found that this often isn’t the case. I learned, through having conversations with my close friend (at their own pace), that the reason they stayed silent for so long was for fear of shame, guilt, and causing other people trouble. They told me many of their own friends who struggle with suicide ideation feel the same way. They don’t reach out because society doesn’t feel like a welcoming place to talk about these things.
We, however, need to start talking so that those who have lost someone to suicide or those who struggle themselves know that they don’t have to feel ashamed for what they are going through. No one should feel alone, and no one should feel like a burden.
Suicide is all around us, so our conversation about it has to be too. Be the voice that is brave enough to break the stigma. Change might not happen overnight but change can start with you.