How We've Reduced Mental Health Stigma in the 4 Years Since My Soulmate Died by Suicide
“If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.” – Barack Obama
Four years ago, on March 15, 2015, Steve Tarpinian, my soulmate for over 33 years, took his own life.
Stigma: That Was Then
At the time of Steve’s death, the suicide/mental health stigma was alive and well. Stigma is defined as a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of.
In the first few months after Steve died, I myself perpetuated the suicide stigma with my silence on the cause of his death. Eventually, I concluded that silence perpetuates stigma. Thus, I wrote Steve’s memoir, “Slipped Away,” and published it seven months after he passed in an effort to inspire conversation about mental health and suicide. If we can eliminate the stigma, those who struggle with thoughts of taking their own life will not feel embarrassed to reach out for help. Also, for the loved ones of those that continue to be lost to suicide, perhaps the permanent sadness in the eyes of the suicide loss survivors will lessen slightly when they no longer have to carry the suicide stigma burden. This heavy weight these loss survivors shoulder only deepens that sadness.
I can clearly remember the strange looks and reactions of people when they were told the cause of Steve’s death was suicide. Some told me they thought it was wrong for me to share that information. It is my firm belief that people were uncomfortable with the conversation and did not know what to say about such a “taboo” subject. There was a time when no one talked about cancer or HIV/AIDS due to the associated stigmas. Now that they are more freely spoken about for the diseases they are, more treatment options and support are available for those that have these diseases. As a society, our attitudes towards mental health and physical health should be no different.
Fame Put to Good Use: This Is Now
Since Steve took his own life in 2015, many are now using the power of their celebrity to raise awareness by sharing their own mental health struggles or the struggles of their loved ones. The British royalty (Prince William and Prince Harry), Chris Cornell, Demi Lovato and Glenn Close and her sister are some examples.
In 2017, Logic, a popular young singer, released a powerful suicide prevention anthem. The title of the song is the toll-free suicide prevention hotline: “1-800-273-8255” and the lyrics are written from the perspective of one who has called the hotline because they wanted to end their own life. The hotline has received record call volumes since the song’s release.
Steve was an excellent swimmer and he admired and respected Michael Phelps, who has been very open about his struggles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts since 2018. If Steve was still alive when Michael shared his feelings, would he have felt differently knowing he was not alone in dealing with depression? Maybe, maybe not.
At the 2019 Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga won the Best Duo/Group Performance for her Bradley Cooper collaboration “Shallow,” taken from the soundtrack to their film “A Star Is Born.” In her acceptance speech, she dedicated her award to mental health awareness, highlighting it as one of film’s prevalent themes.
“I’m so proud to be part of a movie that addresses mental health issues — they’re so important. A lot of artists deal with that, and we’ve got to take care of each other. So, if you see somebody who’s hurting, don’t look away.” – Lady Gaga
Social Media Is Helping to Spread the Word: This Is Now
In 2000, Kevin Hines attempted suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He survived and is telling his story. Finally, 19 years later, it seems
people are listening. A recent video about Kevin’s journey to a suicide attempt was posted on Facebook. The post had over 7.4 million views, 1500+ comments, 21,000+ reactions and almost 94,000 shares.
In 2015, I created a Facebook page to honor Steve’s legacy and since then, I have posted weekly photos and anecdotal stories of our lives together which were all well received. Occasionally I would share links about mental health or suicide in an effort to educate. In the early beginnings of that page, there were virtually no interactions, comments or shares to the mental health or suicide related posts. As time has gone on, people seem to be no longer afraid to comment on or share these types of postings.
The Activism of Young Adults Is Our Greatest Hope
The future of reducing the stigma is in the hands of the young and here are some examples of them being up to the task.
P.S. I Love You Day was founded by Brooke DiPalma in 2010 seven months after her father died by suicide. Her intent is to boost awareness for mental health. This year was the ninth annual event and was marked by several assemblies and activities in 95 Long Island, NY schools. The February 7, 2019 and February 8, 2019 editions of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, gave press coverage to this mental health campaign.
Youth Aware of Mental Health, or YAM, was developed by researchers at
Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and Columbia University in New York. On
February 9, 2019, the Associated Press reported on school kids learning about
mental health through the YAM program in Dallas.
In 2018, New York and Virginia became the first two states to enact laws requiring mental health education in schools.
Although we still have a long way to go, progress is indeed being made in reducing mental health and suicide stigma. It may not happen in my lifetime; however, I feel confident that someday, in the not too distant future, people will be able to speak freely about these topics without shame or embarrassment. Mental health will be treated as importantly as physical health is now.
Although my voice may be small, my journey to eliminate the stigmas associated with suicide and mental health that began just under four years ago will continue.
“My voice is never much louder than a ripple, but even small voices sound loud when you talk about things that matter.” ― Natalie Lloyd
Learn more on SlippedAway.org.