The Deadly Impact of Stigma on Suicide Attempt Survivors
If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
I am a lot of things. I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter, social worker, mental health practitioner, friend, advocate, teacher, learner and less known, a suicide attempt survivor. Being a suicide attempt survivor does not necessarily define me, but it is definitely something that happened to me and will forever shape my life. More specifically, the influence of mental health stigma throughout my crises was profound. Therefore, the issue of mental health stigma is near and dear to my heart.
I like to think I had a decent childhood and a supportive family. I was the youngest of three children. You could often find me playing alone on the porch of our old farmhouse, dreaming of being a tenacious ballerina or listening to my brother’s edgy CD collection. When the weather was not great, I kept myself busy by staging gory car accidents with my Barbie dolls or slowly typing Oregon Trail-themed stories on our ancient word processor. I can still remember how much pride I felt when my parents would read my creative but “dark” stories and promptly place them in my messy baby book. Although I was often alone, I was always cared for. As I neared middle school, I felt a shift in my overall well-being and inner dialogue. I remember thinking I was different in some sort of deep “felt sense.” I would brush these experiences off with the rationalization of, “But don’t all kids feel that way?”
As I hit puberty, I became preoccupied with my feelings of loneliness, confusion and sadness. Then, soon after a jarring sexual assault at the age of 12, things magnified. Out of debilitating fear, I repressed a multitude of complex and painful emotions to not burden others or scare my family. To cope, I immersed myself in excelling! I became a textbook perfectionist and joined everything I could think of. I was a straight-A student, an athlete (not a good one) and an artist. This was not easy but … it worked!
This fluctuation between suppression and dissociation continued into college. Once junior year of undergrad came around, I endured a variety of difficult mental health struggles. The majority of my early 20s consisted of battling major depression, chronic suicidal ideation and dangerous substance abuse. It was after my third suicide attempt when I nearly lost my life and spent multiple days in the intensive care and behavioral health units, that I really felt the impact of mental health stigma.
I remember my time on the psychiatric unit being full of shame, embarrassment, anger and overall humiliation while I hustled through the assessments and blatantly lied to my care team. I was a psychology student! Didn’t they understand I knew what to say to get out of here?! Unfortunately, I was still consumed with thoughts of suicide, and quite honestly, determined to get out and attempt again.
My return to life felt intolerable. How could I return to my family? They were so angry with me; my own mother, brother and sister refused to visit me because I was being “selfish and a coward.” I already hated myself, and now even my own flesh and blood validated this scorn. I was devastated and tired. My body was begging for rest. My muscles ached while bruises and needle marks decorated my legs and forearms. My throat burned for weeks and I would become uncontrollably nauseated when confronted with reminders of my attempt. I was tired of fighting these thoughts and wrangling my emotions. I was tired of cancelling plans, withdrawing from classes and lying to friends. My body had survived, but my spirit was barely hanging on.
This lived experience is difficult to explain to people. For centuries, we have villianized people who endure psychological struggling. In Norman Sartorius’ “Fighting for Mental Health: A Personal View,” he states, “People suffering from mental illness are not seen as people requiring help, but as weaklings, evil doers, or simulants. Their human rights are often not respected, and the care they receive is usually sub-optimal.” Mental health has been denied its validity and often described as a “hidden burden” for those enduring this stigma.
This conceptualization of how stigma impacts the survivor really resonates with me. As evidenced from my story, I continually felt the burden of mental health stigma: before, during and after each mental health crisis. I was always looking for ways to minimize, hide or ignore my pain. I assumed if people understood how much I was really struggling, I could be shamed, invalidated, seen as “crazy,” “violent” or “unfit.” It most certainly did not help when my family’s deep-rooted stigma instigated more isolation and only validated the stigma I held so tightly. This was incredibly detrimental to me asking for help, adhering to medicine and taking care of myself. What was the point? I was sick. I was broken and vile. The stigma was an all-consuming barrier.
Additionally, the deeper stigmatization of suicide made my situation more complex and painful. Much research supports the notion mental health stigma, and that specifically related to the issue of suicide, is cyclical. Meaning, those who feel the effects of this stigma (hidden burden), often have increased mental health symptoms, ultimately increasing suicidal ideation and attempts. Research indicates experiencing mental health stigma is linked to lower self-esteem, poorer life satisfaction and a smaller social network. Of course, this leads to worsening symptoms and more dire outcomes.
My story is not that different than so many other suicide attempt survivors out there. Many of us have worked endlessly to undo the years of ingrained stigma that was taught to us from a small age, both internally and externally. Not knowing what to do is OK. Asking for help is OK. Help is available.
It took me years to see how surviving such trials made me stronger, wiser and more compassionate. I had to come to peace with making this part of my story a vehicle to educate others, assist my clients and be a better mother. I now view my mental health diagnosis and struggles as strengths, mechanisms that have made me more connected and grounded in the human experience. Compassion is powerful. If we choose compassion over judgment, we reduce stigma. If we can diminish stigma in any way possible, we can save lives.
Mental health difficulties and suicidal ideation are unique and individualized experiences for most people. Yet, there is always help. If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call 911 or go to the nearest ER. Additionally, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Note: I do want to send a special thank you to all who stood by me throughout my mental health struggles. Specifically, I am forever thankful to my stepfather and nephew. They never gave up on me and that in itself, aided in my healing.
Getty image by Favor_of_God