Alive: Living with the stigma of past suicide attempts


Suicide is something that happens daily, and each case of it is poignant and deeply impacting to those left behind.  Lately, thanks to the global reach of the media, our ability to share anything in nanoseconds, and, let’s face it, the celebrity factor of the more recent deaths by suicide, we have been able to gain profound insight into this issue as well as contemplate the after effects of the suicide attempts.

While there is an enormous body of research that exists to discuss the impact of suicide deaths on survivors (friends and family left behind), in this article I’d like to talk about the stigma that exists for those who attempted suicide themselves and remained alive – in hopes that it brings awareness and change in the treatment of those who need our support more than ever.

While not completely certain how attempted suicide stigmatizing became so egregious in our society, many researchers guess that the roots of it date back to the times when suicide was illegal and was, almost ironically, punishable by death in most civilizations, should the suicide attempt not end in termination of life. Even the way we speak of suicide reflects it.  A typical expression is “committed” suicide – implying that it’s a crime like a robbery or rape; or an act that encourages completion. Some of the stigmas or stereotypes about those who attempt to die by suicide are more subtle than that and may include the beliefs that these individuals are:

  • Attention-seekers
  • Malicious
  • Contagious
  • Cowards
  • Mentally Ill
  • Dangerous
  • Substance Abusers
  • Weak Character
  • Losers or Failures
  • Poor
  • Stubborn
  • Not spiritual enough
  • Immoral
  • Selfish
  • Beyond help or recovery
  • Depressed
  • Loners
  • Incompetent

And the list goes on.  It’s interesting to note that not only do others believe these stigmatizing labels – those who attempted suicide and lived, often believe that of themselves as well.  Many of these individuals feel as if they are a failure for not “finishing the job” or that their loved ones are now ashamed of them as if they’ve transacted a morally questionable act. In one study, most respondents said they would not date someone who had attempted suicide and almost half of the responders stated they would not purchase the house next door to them. Attempters are frequently viewed as somehow betraying their families and friends, as well as always questioned as to why they attempted.  In this attempt to explain, it is often assumed that the ,” is a substance abuser, mentally ill or not successful.

However, when the attempter does not fit these stereotypes, the judgment becomes even harsher as the public struggles to understand.  They then hear stigmas such as “ungrateful”, “weak”, “impulsive” – implying that a suicide requires a set of specific reasons.  They also tend to get viewed as “failures” – instead of celebrating their ability to continue living, they are being judged and stigmatized on their inability to “complete” the suicide, which feels like a disappointment to the attempter.

In a recent study by Hanschmidt et al (2016), the researchers identified four main areas of the stigma that those who are alive after a suicide attempt often experience.

Contagion

This stigma makes the individual feel as if their attempted suicide is a disease that others may catch; they report the feeling of awkwardness and isolation as if others were afraid to contract their suicidal thoughts. Other ways contagion is perpetuated is by making the attempter feel that they cannot be trusted to be left alone, or around children, even though they no longer experienced suicidal ideations.  Friends and family are sometimes shunned just by association. This stigma is one of the more isolating ones, and the individual in recovery may suffer needlessly without support and socialization.

Attention-Seeking

This stigma carries labels such as “drama queen,” “manipulative”, “boy who cried wolf” and “attention seeker. The belief here is that the attempt is not “really” an actual suicide attempt if it does not end with death, and is therefore just a “scam,” a cry for attention.  This stigma is dangerous because it suggests that if we ignored these “fakers,” the issue would resolve itself when in some cases nothing could be further from the truth.

Malingering

This stereotype implies that the individual is simply not trying hard enough to recover. Some may feel as if people are being impatient with them – “you’re alive, what more do you need” – while others may be implying it is taking them a very long time to “get back to normal” or “snap out of it”. This stigma is damaging in its destructive approach to recovery and how individual that is for each person; as well as the re-build of trust and communication.

Impossibility of Recovery

Here the attempter may feel as if they are permanently damaged and are beyond repair. They feel constantly monitored and mistrusted, and unable to care for themselves or others. They feel that this label is permanent – and in some cases, there are physical reminders of the attempt that make it even more so (for example scarring or resulting disability).  However, it’s important to understand that the possibilities of recovery are infinite and are unique to each individual and that seeing them as beyond help permanently is a major setback on the road to better times.

Self-Stigma

As if being judged by the world wasn’t tough enough, there is also self-stigma.  Attempters typically share a sense of shame, feeling weak and like a failure or a burden.  They feel that there must be something wrong with them and to resolve this self-labeling, they would frequently engage in avoidant behaviors such as hiding the truth about the attempt, masquerading it as something else to make it more acceptable, or not talking about it at all.

The dangers of these external and self-stigmas are that they can serve to exacerbate the issues that were there prior to the attempt instead of helping the attempter focus on healing and recovery, which could lead to risks of a repeated attempt.

Matters that lead individuals to suicide are complex and multi-layered.  This article highlights just the tip of the iceberg of the dangers of suicide stigmatization and how badly intervention and communication programs are needed.  One final thing to remember that regardless of the outcome of the suicide attempt, the person attempting felt deep pain and suffering – and that is indisputable.  Begin your support journey with compassion and understanding.

Below are some resources to help you or others dealing with suicidal ideations or post-suicide trauma – regardless of what side of the issue you may find yourselves on.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Crisis Textline: https://www.crisistextline.org/

Suicide Awareness:  http://www.save.org

Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: http://www.sptsusa.org/

Coping app: http://www.suicidepreventionapp.com/

How to speak about the issue: http://www.speakingofsuicide.com/

Research References:

Hanschmidt, F., Lehnig, F., Riedel-Heller, S., & Kersting, A. (2016). The stigma of suicide survivorship and related consequences–A systematic review. PLoS One, 11(9) doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162688

Sheehan, L. L., Corrigan, P. W., & Al-Khouja, M. (2017). Stakeholder perspectives on the stigma of suicide attempt survivors. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 38(2), 73-81. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1027

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