Overcoming the Stigma of Suicide

By Greg Marley, LCSW

 

A loss by suicide is shocking, devastating and one of the most difficult of losses to grieve. The stigma associated with suicide can make it difficult for a family to acknowledge the loss and to work through their grief. The shame or embarrassment associated with suicide can lead a family to keep it a secret. That was the case following the death of my grandfather, Henry Yoppe in 1967. I was 12 when he died and knew only he was sick and that he died in the hospital. I was in my 50s when I learned from my mother that he took his own life, and that his father (my great grandfather) also died by suicide many years earlier.

 

At the time of this revelation, I was already working in suicide prevention; perhaps because I unconsciously knew the impact of suicide and wanted to prevent others from suffering that loss. I often think about my mother and the sense of isolation she must have felt in grieving the loss of her father while holding the secret even within her immediate family. For many family members suicide can isolate them in their grief as people may feel uncomfortable approaching someone whose loved one ended their own life. It is even more isolating for those unable to share the cause of death. We work tirelessly to break down the stigma associated with suicide. We encourage people to talk about suicide and mental health and to learn to reach out and ask if they are concerned about a friend or family member. Suicide prevention is truly up to us all, reaching out and helping those at risk.

 

The power of an open conversation about suicide comes back to me regularly when people who attend suicide prevention trainings tell us how the experience enabled them to reach out to someone who was thinking about suicide, and to get them the help they needed. Recently we helped plan a community event to raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. There was also a time to acknowledge those who were lost to suicide. Many did, including one family member who acknowledged the loss of a spouse several years earlier. Prior to that evening, the person had never told another person that the death was a suicide, rather a medical issue. The evening, organized as a venue to increase suicide prevention also began the process of lowering the stigma of suicide loss in a small community. Because suicide prevention is up to us all.