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Why the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness and Suicide Must Stop

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741

Recently, a group of people in my town gathered at the waterfront to brave the cold and, yes, even snowy morning to participate in a walk/run for Mental Health Awareness Month.

My family and I had never been a part of any such thing.

But now, how could we not? You see, I lost my husband to suicide nearly nine months ago. If you’re reading for the first time, you may be shocked to read those words. You may consider me brave for writing them. Still, some of you may quietly think to yourself that you would never admit or talk about such a thing if it were to happen in your family.

I hope none of you had those thoughts. Yet, still so many do. It is called social stigma. And this force of disgrace is possibly, partly to blame for my husband’s death.

I will never completely understand what it was like for him, all 43 years of his life, to combat such a devastating feeling of worthlessness no matter how many of us told him otherwise. He was such a hard worker and a gentle soul — a good, sweet and kind man. But he never thought he was good enough. I will never understand his thought process or his desperation in his last days. But, being his wife, I do know a little. I know he needed help — sooner than when he got it. And I believe one of the reasons he did not reveal his illness earlier was because of stigma.

Not long after he was released from the hospital for the first time, my husband returned to work in the construction sector. Some of his co-workers treated him differently. In fact, they made things tough for him. Their comments and actions, along with his internal mental struggle, helped to land him in the hospital for a second time.

Once released, he came home, intent on finding a new job. One where people would treat him with patience, and likely, one where people wouldn’t know about where he had just been.

I remember one morning I had taken the day off so he and I could run errands together. We had our new puppy with us and I wanted to show him off at the office.

My husband hesitated outside the main door, a new kind of fear in his eyes. “What is it?” I asked.

“They know about me,” he answered. “They know what I tried to do.”

Luckily, I was confident enough in my co-workers to assure him they would be gracious and not avoid him or look at him strangely. I was right. In my office, he was greeted warmly and with compassion. (Thanks, guys.)

Yes, we were lucky that day. Stigma is shrinking. People are talking. Still, the world has a long way to go.

On Saturday, the small group of walkers, as they traveled along the highway, wore T-shirts bearing names of loved ones and carried signs. One said, “It’s pronounced mental illness, not kray-zee.”

My husband was afraid people would think he was “crazy.” As a result, he kept his struggles hidden. He hid them from everyone. Even from me. Sometimes I think he tried to hide them from himself, pushing them deep down inside, while wearing his plastic smile on the outside.

May is Mental Health Awareness month. Last year, I didn’t know that. This year, I wonder. And I walk.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via LucidSurf

Originally published: March 23, 2017
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