Suicide remains a subject surrounded by stigma. It is a topic that seems to generate fear and discomfort in our society, something people feel unable to talk about in open conversation. The act of intentionally taking one’s life seems so unbearable to imagine, we would rather avoid it or pretend it’s not an important issue.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports suicide to be the cause of death for approximately one million people worldwide each year. This represents a global morality rate of one death every 40 seconds. It is further predicted that by 2020 the death rate will increase to one death every 20 seconds. In Britain alone, there are an estimated 6000 suicides each year — the biggest cause of death for young people aged between 20 and 34. In 2014, Papyrus (the national UK charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide) reported a shocking 594 young people aged between 10 and 24 took their own lives. That’s not forgetting the many thousands each year that contemplate suicide, harm themselves or sit alone with frightening thoughts and emotions, afraid or unable to speak about how they are feeling. Yet with high and increasing numbers of suicide emerging, it is still a subject engulfed in cultural taboo.
Some of the stigmas around suicide implicate that it’s an act of weakness, associated with mental health disorders, or something that happens only within dysfunctional families. In truth, as the statistics verify, suicide can affect anyone. Although rates are high amongst those experiencing addiction, homelessness and mental health problems, suicide can and does results from many complex factors. Examples include: redundancy or retirement, bereavement, loss of a relationship, bullying, sexual orientation, gender identity, social isolation, and unresolved trauma such as childhood neglect or abuse. It is also more likely to occur in times of socioeconomic, individual or family crisis.
In Great Britain, gender differences play a big role around risks of suicide, with four out of five people who take their lives being male. This may have generational and cultural connotations linked to the idea around men being strong and providing for families making them less likely to talk about emotions and ask for help. Whereas a higher rate of women will access support with 1 in 4 women seeking treatment for depression compared to 1 in 10 men. The Maytree - a charity in London that provides a safe, non-judgemental place and support for individuals feeling suicidal - records a higher number of women accessing their service than men. The exact cause for men to be more at risk than women is unknown. One theory is a tendency for men to be more socially isolated. They may also find it harder to engage with emotions.
Further factors contributing to the stigma may have stemmed from religious and social biases that reinforce the idea of suicide being a sin. Prior to 1961, a failed attempt to end one’s life was the offence of ‘committing suicide’, a crime with the potential for prosecution and imprisonment. The suicide act (1961) decriminalized the behaviour but the term ‘committed suicide’ is still widely used in today’s society. SOB’s (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide), the UK charity who offer support to those bereaved by suicide, have campaigned to get this term abolished from our language. Importantly, this highlights the links between negative language and the stigma and shame attached to this type of bereavement.
Individuals bereaved by suicide are quite often left with a mixture of emotions that can be different from other forms of grief. Although grief can be unique in each path it channels, grief through suicide often begins with a state of shock, a numbness followed by a tornado of different thoughts, question and emotions. Survivors (the term used in reference to individuals bereaved by suicide) commonly experience feelings of guilt or responsibility, questions of ‘why?’ and ‘what could I have done?’. Anger, rejection, confusion, betrayal, and feeling ashamed, are re-occurring themes, alongside a sense of relief, especially if the loved one had been harbouring emotional unease for some time. Exposure to suicide is a risk indicator linked to suicide attempts and completion. For me, this highlights the importance of people who have lost loved ones through suicide getting the support they need and space to talk about the associated emotions.
For the many that have been exposed to suicide, having a non-judgemental, safe space to discuss what they’re going through can lead the way to ensuring they are not condemned to the same outcome. In my experience, people don’t know what to say or don’t want to confront the unimaginable, and so avoid mentioning the event. Listening to someone with compassion and without judgement can help that person make sense of what’s happened.
Individuals who have attempted to take their own life have reported feeling isolated, confused, inadequate, worthless, depressed, and hopeless. They experience emotions such as guilt, shame and anger, to the point where owning the way they go seems like the only option. The misconception suicide is a selfish act contradicts reports that people who have made attempts believe themselves to be a burden and feel their families would be better off without them. Furthermore, suicidal ideation or thoughts can follow a series of traumatic blows that are not managed effectively.
Within communities we can lead the way to banishing the stigma that can often be a barrier to people seeking help by talking about suicide. As a topic, suicide is often met with silence, reinforcing the sense of shame and further isolating those experiencing suicidal thoughts. People may fear that the topic being raised will reinforce suicidal ideas, scared they’ll say the wrong thing, feel pressured to remain upbeat or find solutions. Supporting someone through suicidal ideation can feel like a huge responsibility, and something I would not encourage individuals to do alone. I would like to see communities working together with greater awareness and signposting to available treatment with the emergence of increased one to one support for individuals and their families alongside groups set up especially for those experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Samaritans contact: 116 123