Let’s Talk About Suicide

By Melissa Blake 09/23/19

Changing misconceptions and long-held stereotypes won’t happen overnight, but making the conscious decision to talk openly and honestly about suicide is a strong start.

a man sits alone in the city, looking depressed.
If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Suicide is everywhere. We hear about it on the news, we see the headlines, we read the sad statistics. But here's the thing: We don't talk about suicide. We’re not having the kind of open, honest conversations that will start breaking down harmful prejudice and stigma – about people who die from suicide and also the people left behind.

We know the facts and figures, but that’s only part of the story. We don’t know how to actually communicate about suicide to learn what’s behind the statistics. We can’t fill in the blanks because we’re afraid: We worry that we’ll say the wrong thing, or unintentionally offend someone. So instead we say nothing at all. But 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.

Speaking About Suicide

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – a time the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes as a time to share stories and resources in an effort to start meaningful conversations on the taboo of suicide.

“We use this month to reach out to those affected by suicide, raise awareness and connect individuals with suicidal ideation to treatment services,” reads NAMI’s website. “It is also important to ensure that individuals, friends and families have access to the resources they need to discuss suicide prevention.”

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States overall, but it’s the second leading cause of death in people ages 10-34. In 2017, there were twice as many suicides (47,173) in the U.S. as there were homicides (19,510).

How Can We Help Prevent a Leading Cause of Death if We Can’t Talk About It?

There’s a catch-22 when it comes to suicide: People are reluctant to talk about it because it’s a sensitive and deeply personal topic, but it remains a sensitive topic because people don’t talk about it. So we find ourselves tip-toeing around suicide altogether, which doesn’t help anyone. For years, I’d find myself at a loss for words whenever someone would mention suicide, so I’ve been there.

And yet, I also found myself desperate to talk about it after my father died from suicide in 2003. In the months and years following his death, I began to see up close just how much people are unwilling to talk about suicide. I never realized just how uncomfortable the topic makes people, whether they’d personally lost someone to suicide or they’d seen one of the many headlines about celebrities who die by suicide. It really is a taboo topic. 

How can we help prevent a leading cause of death if we can’t even talk about it? And how can we help people who have been left behind if we can’t acknowledge the cause of their pain?

That’s why I've been trying to change suicide’s shameful stigma. For the last 16 years, I’ve been vocal, unafraid to talk about the very things people don’t want to talk about. In the beginning, I talked about my father as a way to process my grief. I saw it as a way to keep my father’s memory alive, but as the years went on, I began to realize that my talking about his suicide wasn’t just for me. Sure, it may have started out that way, but the more statistics I read and the more stories I heard, the more I learned how many people are affected by suicide. I began to feel a responsibility to share my story.

I Want People to Know They're Not Alone

Today, I talk about suicide because I want people to know they’re not alone. I talk about suicide because I want people who have lost a loved one and people who suffer from suicidal ideation to know that they shouldn’t feel ashamed or like there’s something wrong with them. And not talking about it? That silence only reinforces harmful stigmas and can even be a significant barrier to someone seeking help.

Instead of silence, we need to start regularly engaging in an open and honest dialogue, including debunking common myths associated with suicide. For example, misconceptions like the belief that most suicides happen without warning, and that people who die from suicide are selfish and “taking the easy way out” are false and incredibly damaging.

So where do we go from here? Perhaps the best place to start is to realize that we all have a responsibility to create a safe space, says Forbes contributor Margie Warrell, who lost her brother to suicide.

“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,” she wrote in 2018. “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.”

The stigma of suicide is far too strong, and any chance you get to talk about it is another opportunity to break down those walls of stereotypes. Don’t say the word suicide in a hushed tone, as if you’re talking about something you shouldn’t; the statistics show that most people have been impacted by suicide in some way. And try not to lie about how your loved one died because you think it will be easier than dealing with the looks and questions from people. When you lie, you’re sending the message that what your loved one did was shameful, and that further contributes to the misconceptions and prejudice people have about suicide. It might be difficult to be open about this, but it’s also freeing (and it gets easier each time you do it). 

Mental Illness Is Physical Illness

I'll never understand why people don't treat mental health the same as physical health. Why is someone "heroic" for battling cancer, but "weak" for dying from suicide? At its core, mental illness is a physical illness, so we can’t separate the two. The more we start talking about mental illness in the same way we talk about physical illnesses like cancer or diabetes, the more we lessen the stigma surrounding suicide. Changing misconceptions and long-held stereotypes won’t happen overnight, but making the conscious decision to talk openly and honestly about suicide is a strong starting point. 

If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).

If you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.

For more information about suicide prevention, or to get involved and learn how to help someone in crisis, visit #BeThe1To.

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Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights, relationships and family life, pop culture and women's issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter.