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Suicide silence and stigma

  • 03 October 2013

Silence 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