Silence and stigma

We must address the problem of suicide more openly

After first-year College student Jake Cusano took his life, I started seeing the telltale signs of discomfort with suicide. With two suicides in my family history, the reactions were familiar. Some reflexively lowered their voices at the word; others silently refrained from the topic. Even my Sustained Dialogue group – an irrepressibly vocal bunch – found themselves shy of conversation.

This attitude toward mental illness dates back thousands of years. Stigmatization of suicide has ancient roots, extending back to premodern associations between suicide and evil spirits, witchcraft and disease. In our more enlightened era, suicide stigma takes on a subtler form — chiefly the discomfort, avoidance and blame that characterize communities in the wake of a suicide.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, about 1,100 college students kill themselves each year, making it the second-leading cause of death on college campuses behind accidents. “College students,” writes specialist Elana Sandler in Psychology Today, “refuse to get help because ‘getting help’ is stigmatized. It’s stigmatized by their peers, their parents and campus systems.” Sandler notes that often students who commit suicide are unknown to college counseling services. This trend suggests a serious disconnect between need and treatment on campuses.

One cannot place blame solely on the administration or the friends of victims. A comprehensive approach is critical to suicide prevention — one involving the entire community, including roommates, classmates, resident advisors, faculty and, of course, the administration and campus counseling center. But any approach to suicide prevention must involve suicide’s de-stigmatization.

When considering the shame and unease associated with suicide, the history of cancer makes an excellent case study. In the first half of the 20th century, cancer, like suicide, was shrouded in fear and misinformation — and, for these reasons, stigmatized. Though the gradual change in public perception is complex, some useful analogies may be drawn to suicide and depression.

Perhaps most fundamental is separating the disease from the individual’s character. Individuals harboring depression or suicidal thoughts should not be treated as weak, selfish or dangerous. Cancer overcame its stigma largely because activists guided the public toward a more clinical mentality, focusing on prevention and treatment. The equivalent for suicide is understanding the biological and social causes of depression, promoting good mental health practices and encouraging a more methodical use of counseling services.

Perhaps an equally essential component in reducing suicide stigma is open and compassionate dialogue. Here is an activity the entire community can participate in. Opportunities for such dialogue arise in our everyday social routines. We must encourage others to talk about their experiences with these mental disorders — whether in relation to personal experience or that of a loved one. In the 21st century, not only are the ins and outs of cancer discussed openly, but individuals fighting the disease are often seen as heroes for challenging against a difficult, deadly illness. This new, positive spin has proven far more productive than silence, and if societal attitudes toward mental illness could reach this point, I believe the epidemic would be half solved. Much of suicide and depression are about feeling alienated and unworthy. Unlike cancer — with which tumors grow regardless of social perception — suicide and depression can be reduced simply by alleviating social negatives and increasing social positives.

Years ago, after a cousin of mine took his life, my family kept quiet about it. We never addressed the topic in public gatherings. We acknowledged it only in reserved tones, in private settings. I was taught to avoid discussion of suicide and acknowledge such deaths only in the vaguest sense. Years later, when a second family member took his life, the process began again. I often wonder if the second one could have been prevented if my family had been more willing to address the issue. Though this is impossible to know, I learned that the social act of breaking through a stigma is like getting a shot — painful in the moment but essential to a healthier future. I believe the same principles apply to the present, in the wake of Jake’s death.

In recent years, the University and Student Health have redoubled efforts to educate the student body about suicide. RAs are given more training for dealing with mentally distressed individuals, and student organizations focused on mental health such as Active Minds and To Write Love On Her Arms gain momentum each semester. Despite this progress, many obstacles remain. By challenging our discomfort and forcing ourselves to foster open dialogue about suicide, we combat the pain and misinformation, creating an atmosphere where students feel encouraged to seek the support they need.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His column runs Tuesdays.

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