Historical, real or perceived?
Reprinted from "Stigma" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(6), pp. 21-22
I vividly remember the weeks immediately after our treasured son's suicide. I remember being wrapped in a cozy blanket of non-judgemental caring by friends, family, church, co-workers and the agencies working with us. I remember the compassion of RCMP Victim Services in North Vancouver as they told us of Reed's suicide in Calgary. I remember those first long-distance phone calls to tell friends and family that Reed had died by suicide—and realizing that I needed to care for them as much they needed to care for me. I appreciated the Calgary police and the Alberta medical examiner for their gentle questioning and patience with my tears.
Not everything was perfect. Unlike other deaths, survivors1 quickly discover that talking about a suicide brings dinner conversations to a screeching halt. But the true impact of stigma is that it keeps survivors from connecting with each other, robbing us of both 'like me' support and the opportunity to band together with professionals to 'make a difference.'
Sadly, it's often the professionals working the closest to new survivors - funeral home staff, grief therapists, and other ser-vice providers whose well-meaning comments often inadvertently perpetuate stigma. The funeral home would not let us say in the obituary that Reed had died by suicide, and they only very reluctantly included 'donations to the Reed J. Ball Memorial Fund for Suicide Prevention.' Also, every book I read while struggling with 'why' seemed to focus on the family as the problem.
This was stigma as originally defined.2 I felt like Hester in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, set in Puritan New England. In the book Hester is forced to wear a large scarlet 'A' on her clothing to announce her adultery. I felt like I walked around with a large 'S' on my forehead. Eleven years later, I still fight this sense of imposed guilt.
A recent study rep-orted: 'incidents were re-counted of children who had lost a sibling or a parent, returning to the school environment and being subjected to harsh treatment by both teachers and fellow students. Responses ranged from that of a teacher informing a student that her father would be going to hell because 'suicide is a sin,' to students ostracizing a student who lost her sibling by saying 'stay away from her, she has suicide germs.''3
For our family, the worst impact of stigma was not when our son died, but after his first suicide attempt. Stigma meant that we told no one. Stigma thus isolated us from the very support and information that might have made a difference then.
Following Reed's death, the minister of our new church offered sympathy and guidance, and encouraged us to be open about his suicide. She said there had been two or three suicides over the years in that congregation and she could see how the impact of stigma and silence had rippled down into the third generation. Our being open about Reed's suicide might, she suggested, help these folks in their healing. At the memorial service everyone knew that Reed's death had been a suicide. The minister spoke tenderly about Reed, giving the assurance that 'God would take his hurting child home.'
This gift of non-judgemental support continued as my husband and I returned to work. Our co-workers, a typical Vancouver jumble of ethnicities and faiths, compassionately supported us no matter what their particular background taught about suicide.
In short, in the midst of trauma, we were blessed, spared the secondary trauma of stigma and allowed to grieve appropriately. Other survivors who are open about their loss report expe-riences similar to ours.
But even with little overt stigma, members of our Vancouver Suicide Survivors Coalition often still internally feel historical stigma - that per-ceived 'S' on our fore-heads. For last year's World Suicide Prevention Day, we decided to ask libraries and bookstores to build a book and brochure display around our poster, but we were nervous to ask. However, we found the librarians were enthusiastic, and several shared stories of suicide in their families and among co-workers. Just making our request to the libraries helped to tackle stigma. And we learned that the stigma we feel, that perceived 'S,' is sometimes just that - perceived, and not real.
The language of suicide is changing from 'committed' suicide, with its connotations of sin and/or crime, as well as 'completed' or 'successful' suicide, to the more non-blameful, non-judgemental 'died by suicide,' which finally provides appropriate and acceptable language for obituaries.
Other change is happening. Researchers are beginning to untangle the science underlying this complex issue; for example, positron emission tomography (PET) tests being researched might one day help doctors determine who among their depressed patients have the most unusual serotonin-related brain activity - a feature that has been linked to high risk of suicide.4
And the media is improving as an ally, tackling stigma with well-researched, informative and compassionate background articles, exploring suicide as tragedy rather than as a sin or a crime to be sensationalized.
Thus fortified, many survivors choose to stand up to stigma. We take advantage of 'educational moments' to talk about the suicide that has impacted us. More and more survivors are choosing to be open and are met with compassion and understanding, empowering others to also be open. As often as not, people respond with stories of suicide in their own circle. The silence is breaking.
About the author
Bonny is a survivor1 of her 21-year-old son's suicide 11 years ago. She is now Acting Vice-President and Chair of the Survivors Division, Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. She is also Project Manager of Vancouver Suicide Survivors Coalition, a project of the Consumer Initiative Fund of Vancouver Community Mental Health Services
- in the suicide prevention field, 'survivor' or 'survivor of suicide' are terms used in reference to people who have been affected by the suicide death of a family member, friend, colleague, or client/patient
- stigma originally meant a brand, tattoo or physical marker on individuals, a visible mark of shame
- Davis, C. & Hinger, B. (2005). Assessing the needs of the survivors of suicide: A needs assessment in the Calgary Health Region (Region #3), Alberta. Retrieved June 9, 2005, from www.calgaryhealthregion.ca/hecomm/mental/SuicidePostvention.htm
- Ezzel, C. (2003, February). Why? The neuroscience of suicide. Scientific American, 288(2), 44-51.