The increasing rates of suicide in the United States has been an issue for decades. As with many mental health conditions, American society has unfortunately applied stigma to suicide and those coping with suicidal ideation. To overcome the U.S. mental health crisis and decrease the yearly rates of suicide, we must address these stigmas.
What is suicide stigma?
Stigma can be defined as thoughts, words, or actions that negatively impact the well-being of a person or group of people.
Sadly, stigma continues to surround suicide and many people’s understanding of it. When it comes to suicidality and other mental health concerns, three types of stigmas come into play:
- Public stigma: This refers to the wider held stigmas in any given society or group. As it relates to suicide, public stigma refers to perceptions of family, friends, healthcare providers, and other individuals in someone’s life.
- Self-stigma: This is defined as the internalization of negative stereotypes. As it relates to suicidality, this can mean feeling weak, like a burden on loved ones, etc. Though these are all false, such feelings can worsen suicidal ideations.
- Systemic stigma: This is the inability of an individual to seek treatment due to lack of healthcare options, governmental policies, and other macro-level social issues.
Within the U.S., all three of the stigmas above continue to affect those experiencing suicidal ideation — making it much harder for people to get the treatment they need.
The numbers behind suicide stigma
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2021:
- Suicide was among the top nine leading causes of death in the U.S.
- 7 million adults attempted suicide in the U.S.
- 48,183 people died by suicide in the Unites States
- Between 2000-2021, suicide rates in the U.S. increased by 36%
Despite these numbers, people are reluctant to talk about mental health issues, suffering alone in silence while family members and friends often aren’t sure how to help. In fact, studies have found that that nearly one-third (31%) of Americans have worried about others negatively judging them for seeking mental health treatment.
In general, we still struggle as a society to adequately address behavioral health conditions. Mental health is still a struggle for people to discuss openly, mostly due to a lack of understanding and education. Often there is worry that talking about mental health and suicide will cause more harm than help.
Common myths that perpetuate suicide stigma
Misconceptions surrounding the causes of deaths by suicide remain pervasive. These myths about why suicide happens only serve to sustain stigmas about mental health and suicidality, which leads to more deaths by suicide.
Most stories of hope involve feeling connected, cared for, and heard by others. The more we hide from uncomfortable topics, the harder it is to help others and be a force in fighting these conditions.
To that end, let’s debunk a few of the more common myths about suicide.
Myth #1: Discussing suicide puts it in people’s minds
The opposite is true — we do an amazing service when we bring up suicide and talk openly and honestly about mental health.
By discussing suicide with individuals who display signs of suicidal ideation, we can help people open up about the pain they’re in and help them seek lifesaving solutions.
Myth #2: Suicide is unpredictable
This is false.
In fact, people experiencing suicidal ideation display certain signs. These include:
- Talking about wanting to die or feeling that their loved ones would be better off without them
- Selling or giving away their possessions
- Increased substance use
- Withdrawing from community
Though this is not an exhaustive list, understanding these (and other) warning signs can help dispel the myth that death by suicide happens quickly and unpredictably.
Myth #3: Suicide is selfish
It’s important to remember that those who die by suicide do not do so out of a desire to stop living or get away from the people in their life. Those who die by suicide die because they are in immense pain.
Death by suicide is the result of mental illness. Just like we cannot blame someone for dying of cancer, we cannot blame someone for dying by suicide.
Psychological effects of suicide stigma
The pervasiveness of the above myths and the resultant suicide stigma in American society are one of the drivers of increased rates of suicide. When individuals experiencing suicidal ideation cannot discuss the pain they are in, they begin to self-stigmatize and are at much greater risk of dying.
Mental health experts have shown that stigmas around mental health increase the risk of suicide. The reasons why include:
- A decrease in self-esteem
- Avoidance of treatment for fear of further stigmatization
- Internalization of negative beliefs about self
- Feelings of hopelessness and shame
- Withdrawing from friends and family, resulting in social isolation
These behaviors, brought on by stigma, have proven dangerous. In one study, researchers found that self-stigma also correlated with lower rates of recovery from mental illness.
How to address suicide stigma and save lives
Relias webinar on suicide prevention and postvention best practices. Learn more here!
What can behavioral health organizations do to help decrease stigma surrounding suicidal ideation? One of the best ways is through education.
Seek out partnerships in your community and offer free education on suicide and other mental health issues. A great example is working with school systems to educate youth on mental health topics. Studies have found that adolescents are more likely than other groups to change their beliefs and overcome stigmas when presented with educational materials.
To help address systemic stigma, your organization can lobby its representatives at the state and federal levels to increase funding for mental health awareness campaigns and treatment programs. By acting as an authority, you can demonstrate the importance of stigma busting solutions to the general health and well-being of our society.
Tools To Support Suicide Prevention
No matter your care setting, suicide prevention training should be an integral part of your staff’s development and continuing education. Learn how Relias can help.Learn more →