Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

Student Reflections on Topics Covered in our Class

Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

The Stigma of Suicide in the U.S.

October 30, 2020 · 1 Comment · Mental Health, Uncategorized

Suicide- a topic that is still considered almost taboo to talk about, but is actively taking people’s lives day by day. As a certified Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor who has taught over 500 adults how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness in youth, I can tell that out of the entire 8 hour course, the hardest thing to teach people is how to do their part to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness (especially suicide). I’ve done trainings where participants are making stigma-related jokes within an hour of our “reduce the stigma” conversation. People who are responsible for being vectors of suicidal behaviors typically engage in behaviors including stereotyping, avoidance, shunning, and distrust towards people who are affected by suicide (Cvinar, 2005). The negativity associated with is not just frustrating, especially as an advocate for mental health awareness, but it is dangerous. Many victims of suicide suffer from psychological trauma brought on by the shame and hurt from attempting suicide of knowing someone who has died by suicide.
Woman sitting with her head down

Photograph: Carlos Ciudad Photos/Getty Images

So, why is this even a thing? And further- why is it such a difficult tradition to stop perpetuating? Let’s look at the roots. The history of suicide would be longer than the post of the blog would permit, but there are some important truths to keep in mind. One is that the very act of killing yourself used to be a crime in some countries (and attempted murder of anyone, including yourself, is still a crime in many). The criminal language and context has followed the idea of suicide through time, criminalizing the idea to its core. This is why the phrase is “committed suicide”, and not the less stigmatized phrase that I teach in my courses of “completed suicide”. The many myths associated with suicide have also played a part in the current stigmatization of the act. It’s been found that people believe that those who kill themselves are “weak” or “selfish”, or even worse” attention seekers, who don’t need to be taken seriously”.

Jigsaw of suicide statistics in the shape of a head

Judgmental attitudes tend to be very common in most communities, which makes sufferers less likely to open up about their pain. It has been found that people typically face three types of stigma after people learn that they have attempted to take their own lives: societal stigma, personal shame, and structural stigma (discrimination). Structural stigma can be described as victims worrying. “What will happen to me if I disclose this painful history of mine?”. Australia’s suicide prevention adviser Christine Morgan says “When you are looking at somebody wanting to talk about their suicidation, they need to feel safe. They need to talk to somebody and not be judged for it so they can open up and reach out for support – but the barriers are very real.” People tend to be confused about how to access support services, and when they do access them, there tend to be gaps in services. These gaps are harmful, because people who are suicidal need a continuous layer of support and care around them. Writer Katharine Murphy of The Guardian says that “…up to 25% of people who attempt to take their own lives try again, and the risk of relapse is significantly higher during the first three months following discharge from hospital after an attempt.”

Hospital patient looking out of window

The stigma associated with suicide is killing our young people. People’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, mentees, and students. Youth tend to be impulsive, which tend to be part of the reason attempts affect younger adults. Attempts tend to be associated with feelings of self-doubt, stress, financial uncertainty, loss, disappointment, and pressure to succeed. They may see suicide as a way out of their problems. Among younger children, suicide attempts are typically associated with feelings of anger, confusion, sadness, problems with attention, and hyperactivity. According to, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people. However, it has been found that this statistic is largely due to older people dying to other causes (most people 70 years old and up die from cardiovascular diseases, dementia, cancers, and respiratory diseases). Suicide is the second leading cause of deaths in the U.S., for youth ages 15-24 (with leading cause being accidents). Millions of people are affected or are mourning the loss of someone who died by suicide every year. I would say “Can you imagine?”, but that is not grief I would wish upon anyone.
So what can we do? How can we address this dangerous but incredibly common mindset related to suicide? Well, one big thing we can all do is use appropriate, non-criminalizing language when referring to suicide. Another would be to inform and educate people on suicide, and the importance of mental health. Explain that many of the myths still believed about suicide aren’t true, when you are able. It will be a long process, but I’m proud to say that as a society we are making progress, especially with movements like the suicide prevention movement, and #BeThe1To. Check out the charts and graphs below illustrating just how much Americans are becoming more open about mental health.

Pie chart of americans who agree that a mental disorder is something to not be ashamed of bar graphs of attitudes toward mental health

Cvinar, J. G. (2005). Do Suicide Survivors Suffer Social Stigma: A Review of the Literature. Perspectives In Psychiatric Care, 41(1), 14-21. doi:10.1111/j.0031-5990.2005.00004.x
Lozano, M. (n.d.). Quick Tips to Combat Stigma Around Mental Health. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from
Murphy, K. (2019, November 12). ‘Horrific’ level of stigma: Biggest barrier to suicide prevention is discrimination. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from
Olson, R. (2017, March 01). Suicide and Stigma. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from
Ritchie, H., Roser, M., & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2015, June 15). Suicide. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from, C. (2016, September 18). Why do suicidal patients wait hours for a hospital bed? Retrieved October 26, 2020, from


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