Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
The cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is one of the most prominent barriers that prevents struggling people from seeking help.
According to research nearly 50% of respondents do not seek treatment for mental health disorders because they are afraid and ashamed and 56% feel uncomfortable sharing mental health problems with friends or family.
Stigma makes people feel ashamed and can lead them to feel that there is no one they can trust about their issues so they choose to keep it hidden instead of getting treatment.
According to the CDC, there is a direct correlation between the degree of public understanding about suicide and rates of suicide.
In other words, when society shames or thinks less of people with suicidal thoughts/behaviors, they are less likely to seek help and actually more likely to die by suicide.
As this stigma increases, so do barriers to treatment for mental disorders and suicide prevention. People with untreated mental illness are dramatically more likely to be living in poverty than individuals without mental illness (SAMHSA). They are also more at risk for unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and suicide.
People who DO seek help for mental disorders are often stigmatized by society, friends and family members alike.
For example, people who are diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia can be seen as “crazy” and those contemplating suicide as “weak”, “selfish” or “attention-seeking”
These types of beliefs are myths. In reality, a suicide attempt is a person’s way of coping with an unbearable situation (an attempt to make the unbearable bearable). A suicide attempt often represents a cry for help that must be taken seriously and responded to appropriately and compassionately.
There are many other myths that stigmatize people struggling with mental illness and suicidal ideation. If you want to learn more about them, you can check out this video: Suicide Attempt Survivers Bust Myths About Suicide
The media also plays a major role in public perception of suicide by discussing the method used to kill oneself and details about the person who died. Inappropriate reporting practices may promote suicide in vulnerable individuals by romanticizing the death or glamorizing the reasons behind it, or by suggesting that there could be an audience for these views.
The media can help reduce suicide stigma by:
- Portraying suicide survivors as courageous rather than selfish, disturbed, weak or hopeless
- Emphasizing that many suicides are preventable
- Presenting positive ways for readers and viewers to get help
- Ensuring that suicide stories do not sensationalize death.
Breaking the stigma surrounding suicide can help people feel more comfortable talking about a mental health problem. As a result, they may be more likely to seek treatment if/when they develop suicidal thoughts/behaviors.