Why stigma is lethal

The first-time suicide impacted me directly was when a friend of mine took his life. As a kid, he always cracked jokes and pulled pranks, and I got to watch him grow into a wonderful, dedicated man. I can still remember standing at work, wearing my green suit, when I heard the news. I was shaken for days. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral, but I wish I had. No one can ever fill the special place he had in my life.

Many years later, I learned more details related to his death. He had recently gone through a divorce, and his sister had told his parents to get him help. His parents didn’t heed her words. Likely, stigma prevented them from acknowledging the issue. I think about him often. And about his parents who are now burdened with the unfathomable weight of regret.

Mental illness—the topic no one wants to talk about. However, the silence is actually lethal. Here are the facts according to the CDC:

  • Suicide rates increased 30% between 2000–2018.
  • Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States with 45,979 deaths in 2020.
  • This is about one death every 11 minutes.
  • The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide.

I have consulted with far too many teens who believe they have a mental health condition but are afraid to get help. When they confide in me, they often tell me: “My parents don’t believe in mental illness.” Let me say that again: “My parents don’t believe in mental illness.”

Allow me to clear up any confusion: It is real. And it carries very real consequences if we do not recognize it. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 25-34 years of age. It is the third leading cause of death for people 15-24 years old. That is far too significant a number for us to ignore.

Due to medical advancements and an increase in societal awareness, these younger generations are just now starting conversations to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. But before we judge our elders too harshly, we need to understand that not talking about mental illness was the cultural norm. In previous generations, doctors did not have good solutions for those who lived with a mental health condition. I had a great grandmother who had a psychotic break, but they kept her at home, and she never sought treatment.

Decades ago, cancer was a topic that was avoided too—lack of knowledge and understanding, along with an unwillingness to confront the issue prevented people from opening up. Thanks to foundations like LiveStrong, global efforts are underway to spread information to end the stigma. As a result, we now speak more openly about cancer. It’s time for society to follow suit with respect to mental health. Together, we can challenge the stigma—we can fight back.

It’s time to end the silence: our societal ignorance and fear is killing future generations. Nothing can bring back my dear friend. But I am determined not to lose another. I know what it feels like to believe you have no other option, but I am living proof that there is always another option. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The best thing you can do for yourself, and your family is to get educated.

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