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Suicide silence and stigma


Glass of alcohol beside blank notepadSilence is golden. But it can also be leaden. And sometimes it kills, like steel in the heart. That is certainly the case with suicide where those who die are wrapped in silence and those who mourn them are immured in silence. A stigma attaches to suicide and to those close to it.

The stigma was originally a mark branded on criminals or slaves, excluding them from respectable society. Metaphorically it refers to the experience of those who are associated with a deed or condition that arouses bewilderment and terror. It usually touches the dark and mysterious borderlines between life and death, between sterility and fecundity. People fear coming too close to it lest it be contagious, and hesitate to talk about it.

In many societies leprosy is seen as a stigma. Lepers are driven outside the village, and their exclusion often extends to their families.

A stigma also attaches to suicide. It disconnects the person from life, from intimate relationships with friends and family and from society. If we shudder at suicide, we do so because those who take their lives appear to look at what life has to offer but then decide to turn their back on it.

That is why in Rome and in Christian times people who took their own lives were buried outside the communal graveyards and without the prayers that farewelled the dead of the community. The symbolism was clear. They had separated themselves from society and its shared life; now society separated itself from them. And by implication it also marginalised those closely associated with suicide.

The stigma of suicide isolates the people marked by it and affects the way they see themselves and the way they are seen by others. It makes conversation difficult, compounding feelings of isolation and separation from others. Relationships often break under the strain, and family members sometimes take their own lives. Those who survive are left with the memory of an action that seems meaningless. They are unable to share their feelings. Suicide disconnects them from their friend who died; the stigma attaching to suicide separates them from others.

Because suicide so defies the search for meaning, the meanings people make for themselves are often single and thin. They may explain it in terms of callousness, mental illness, of neglect by themselves or other family members, or by significant events in a person's history. Since single explanations are brittle, they are often defended tenaciously. If the meaning I have given to a friend's suicide is wrong, I might be responsible for it. So I cannot afford to contemplate that possibility, precisely because I fear it may be true.

All this leaves relatives and close friends vulnerable and tightly defended, unable to find release from the strong feelings that lie hidden and suppressed. They remain disconnected, unable to speak to one another. In a family this cycle of disconnection may deepen and further enclose its members.

If people are to thrive this cycle must be reversed and the stigma deprived of its power and mystique. The power of stigma is maintained by silence. It can be broken only by talking about it.

But all the factors that lock in silence resist conversation. To speak about suicide requires great trust, and trust can often be built only by skilled and trustworthy mediators of conversation.

That is why counselling and guided conversation with others who have also suffered the loss of family members through suicide are important if people are to flourish. They dispel fear and help people move out of the separation imposed by suicide. They may then reconnect imaginatively with the person who has died, and be open to communicate with others and to face society.

In Australia over 2000 suicides are recorded each year. The people whom those deaths affect intimately are estimated at more than 12,000. These deaths and their consequences affect the whole Australian community. The prosperity and flourishing of any society depend on the easy and trusting connections people make with each other. Suicide vaporises those connections at enormous cost to survivors and to society.

Reconnection is a long journey. It requires time and trustworthy companions who are skilled in listening and encouraging conversation. That is why community agencies like Support After Suicide‎ that can respond quickly to the needs of people, can stay with them for the long haul, and can provide a range of conversations adapted for different needs and stages are so important. They help dispel the stigma of suicide and they help heal society.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Glass and notepad image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, suicide



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Existing comments

My maternal grandfather died, as a result of suicide, six years before I was born. My mother, then 23 years old with my two year old brother on her hip, discovered his body. The specific details of my grandfather's death weren't discussed, at least in my hearing. My mother told me when I was well into my 20s and married with a young child. My mother's trauma and deep sadness were evident to me and, as far as I know, she didn't speak to anyone outside the family about it. There is a stigma and a silence about suicide - and I can understand why family and friends may be shocked and bewildered. There's sometimes a difficulty in opening up to others, risking stigma and misunderstanding. Certainly, there are support groups who can help with healing and families in such a situation should reach out, if they can.

Pam | 02 October 2013  

An excellent article with a link to a support organisation which can help those suffering from a suicide and its aftermath. This is a worthwhile and thoughtful response to an incredibly complex and painful situation.

Edward F | 02 October 2013  

Andrew, do you have any insight into 'copycat' suicides - it may be one reason why talk about suicide is repressed. Is this some acknowledgment that there is some attraction to death we have to try to avoid?

Russell | 02 October 2013  

The victim again, Francis told the world he is a sinner, that makes it easier for him to go out and mix with the sinners of the world. This is what wrong with the dense idiots if God the holy Spirit is living in them no law can touch them, no one can sin if God H S is living in them. The mentality the church have as to who he is, is God's messenger duck down to the shop and get a packet of fags & a bottle of coke. They don't want to give out his full worth they would not be able to have any sin full fun.

Joseph Mitchell | 02 October 2013  

Thanks for this article Andrew. I've shared it on LinkedIn and FB. I found it helpful because it places suicide and discourses about it in a slightly different frame than often occurs. The wider perspective of stigma provides the opportunity to explore the many things that have stigma attached. I appreciate your insight for both personal and professional reasons.

Kim Baird | 03 October 2013  

All so true - My brother took his life almost 14 years ago. I submitted an article to Aurora (Maitland-Newcastle Diocese) which was printed in the March edition this year. This event has changed my whole family and is something which stays with all of us always. My healing and acceptance began because of Mary Ringstad, a grief counselor. It continues. I wanted things to be as they were before my brother's death. Her statement that "things are never the same and people who experience this kind of loss are changed forever_ was perhaps the most significant help I received. Thank you for this article.

Judi McLean | 03 October 2013  

I appreciate the tenet of your article very much. However, to say that the meaning people make are often single and thin, just dismisses all we have learned about the mental illnesses, specially that of depression. A very thin and single sentence

john stuyfbergen | 03 October 2013  

Thank you for another excellent article, Andrew. Having experienced the heart-wrenching grief and futile search for answers after the suicide of my best friend 5 years ago, and having seen how close her suicide came to devouring her wonderful parents and family, I really appreciate your articulate and thoughtful piece, and your call for a new, more sensitive look at how suicide is discussed and handled in our communities. I believe that the lingering sadness felt by anyone who has survived the suicide of a close friend or relative is something that will remain always, but in future may hopefully be able to be channelled into more meaningful dialogue about one of society's last great taboos.

Caitlin | 03 October 2013  

Bravo Andrew! Thank you for having the insight and courage to talk about something most people never want to talk about. Suicide is a very scary subject - because it is tied up with grief and loss and mental illness but also, as I believe, because it can be scary to acknowledge that one of the greatest gifts that God gave us was free will. Tragically for 2000 Australians each year, this free will equals the will to separate "themselves from society and its shared life", as you so eloquently put it. It is scary sometimes for us to recognise that we all have free will and, subsequently, all have the potential - no matter how remote - to do what (thankfully) remains unthinkable for the majority of us and commit suicide. I think this is why most people are scared to talk about suicide - any discussion of suicide will always touch on discussions of our own mortality and our own free will, but in my mind at least, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Uschi | 03 October 2013  

By a certain age most all of us know someone, directly or indirectly, who has committed suicide. It is very important to talk, because we live with so many what-ifs and wonder what we could have done ourselves to alter that course of action. Our helplessness is apparent, our need to take stock of life’s value never greater. It is very important to keep the memories live, to talk about the person we have lost in all of their moments, not just the negative memories and personal conjectures. There is another way forward. There are people to talk to. There is God to talk to, when everything else runs out. Another way is available for everyone.

INSIDE OUT | 03 October 2013  

With due respect to Andrew Hamilton, anxiety about suicide is not a universal human attribute, and may not even be widespread. It does tend to be associated with Christian religion. There are many people who plan suicide, and prepare for it, intending to end life in a calm and controlled way. And it is possible to be quite open about it.

Peter Shaw | 03 October 2013  

A timely article, Mental Health Week beginning Sunday. The World Health Organisation states 90% of suicides result from sufferers of severe mental illness, (SMI), treatable but incurable. Suicide rates increase, as do bereft family and friends. Stigma, a curse for the SMI alive, persists after death. No parent feels anything but a stiletto pierce heart and mind when told their child has died by suicide...almost always violently and alone. Then one must come alive, thinking of the shame and stigma which attach to mental illness and, even more, to suicide. Suffering increases, sometimes even another suicide ensues. Eureka helps by "Support after Suicide." The way to help is to talk, to anyone who will listen, about the loved one, their story, their love, their illness which led to total despair and death was chosen. We MUST talk, as the author says. Nothing offers such release. And those who survive must work. The suicide rate ONLY increases because NO government will fund necessary care for the SMI. The Mental Health Council of Australia stated, 2009, fewer than 40% of SMI receive necessary care; this means some 390,000 receive NO care. Our political leaders provide the greatest stigma. Abbott has cancelled the portfolio of Mental health. This is why we must work...to save lives!

Caroline Storm | 03 October 2013  

It would be helpful if Peter Shaw could explain what he means by " It [suicide] does tend to be associated with Christian religion." Really? Insinuating claims of guilt by association do not help this discussion one bit, especially as much of the most intelligent commentary here is coming from people who call themselves Christian.

INSIDE OUT | 03 October 2013  

Thanks Andy for another beautifully expressed article. In 2010 Eureka Street published an interview with two women who founded Wings of Hope, a self-help group for those who've lost a loved one to suicide - the interview can be found at http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=24231#.Uk0-j7wmw6E Wings of Hope website is www.wingsofhope.org.au

Peter Kirkwood | 03 October 2013  

Mr Shaw your gratuitous assertions re prevalence of calm pagan sang froid suicides lacks scientific statistical corroboration given prima facie clinical,mental, anxiety/psychosocial crisis triggers for suicides: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Suicidecases.png On the other hand a reasonable scientific hypothesis is the non prevalence and paucity of non christian calm ceremonial eg Seppuku-type etc suicides: Seppuku is a 'calm form' of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Seppuku was originally reserved only for samurai. Part of the samurai bushido honor code, seppuku was either used voluntarily by samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (and likely suffer torture), or as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed serious offenses, or performed for other reasons that had brought shame to them. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, consists of plunging a short blade, traditionally a tanto, into the abdomen and moving the blade from left to right in a slicing motion.

Father John George | 04 October 2013  

Re ‘copycat’ suicide. There are media guidelines for the reporting of suicide: http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-suicide/quick-guide these provide responsible ways of addressing suicide so it is not sensationalised or glamourised as there is some evidence that media reporting can create further suicide, particularly for young people. However, Pat McGorry, among others, are calling for us not be so silent: http://www.patmcgorry.com.au/blog/pmcgorry/deadly-silence-has-end

Louise | 04 October 2013  

Thank you Father Andrew. I have just had the good fortune to be able to attend a First Aid Course in Mental Health organised by Manningham Council in collaboration with local community and church group. It was over 4 nights for a total of about 12 hours. I am now a little less ignorant of the pain and suffering of those with mental health issues and have a better idea of listening in a supportive way and perhaps being able to help those suffering get proper help. It is run by Mental Health First Aid Australia and well worth attending if you get the opportunity.

Mary Hoban | 04 October 2013  

You are so right, Andrew. I noticed at AA meetings one parent talking about his/her child's suicide often makes it possible for another parent to share his/her story. Then they talk to one another, and the whole group profits.

Larry Nemer | 04 October 2013  

There are so many reasons for suicide and the context is always unique for each person and family. Sometimes such a tragedy can lead families and the people within them to change and grow. As John O’Donohue said, there may be an eternal script to someone else’s life that will always remain unknown to us. Acceptance with love helps although this can be hard and is usually a process. Rather than look at how we react after the fact of suicide or other like tragedies, I would see a society which values love, support, affirmation and opportunity for all its citizens. This might sound impossibly idealistic but it is a vision that is worth pursuing. As significant social institutions, the Churches have a role to play in this. Some do it better than others. They need to be love focused more than sin and fear focused. On a grounded level, we can reach out to those affected by sadness, disadvantage or tragedy. Acts of kindness and care are immensely healing for those who receive them. They can make all the difference in how one manages..

Kate | 05 October 2013  

Ithink this is not good because the people are overcrouding in one place where is simultaneously not good

Ernest Ramz | 08 October 2013  

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