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History of Stigma: "Committed Suicide"


These are my thoughts, yo.

History of Stigma: "Committed Suicide"

jasmine banks

Mental illness is a disease with individual and collective impact. We have complicated relationships with mental health/illness. We participate in and build communities that cause mental illness, maintain illness through systems of oppression, and then criminalize the results of suffering. The conversation surrounding death by suicide is one rife with layers and nuance that often make it hard to navigate.  The United States has, for much of its history, had laws on books in each state criminalizing those who die by suicide. Though those laws have been changed, the stigma and social attitudes around suicide remain. 

Folks die by suicide as a result of several complicated factors and when someone dies by suicide, we can trace stigma in the ways we talk about survivors and those we've lost. Words build words. These worlds can be redemptive and more free, or a reflection of the systems of harm [patriarchy, white supremacy+anti-blackness, and capitalism]. When we say someone committed suicide. We call up the history (and in some states common laws as recent as the late 90s) that criminalizes those of us with mental illness. "Though rarely prosecuted, the criminalization of suicide may be an issue in civil litigation. Suicide was a crime in common law and remains a crime in several U.S. jurisdictions." [source]

The criminalization of those who die by suicide is a long-held tradition. These folks were denied honorable burials, access into the after-life by some religions, their families were stripped of their belongings and wealth, and anyone attached to the person who died by suicide was held with deep public shame. If you follow the money you'll also discover that insurance companies have had a strong influence about how suicide is framed in our society and why it can become a contentious point in litigation. 

No matter the nebulous details of mental illness, suicide, and society-- we must find ourselves exercising a deeper compassion for those who suffer and move away from language and behavior that continues to stigmatize and criminalize those who suffer from mental illness. Suicide is a result of devastating loss of hope. Suicide is a result of the failure of communities to treat those at risk of harm or the result of not providing the right types of interventions. No matter what- suicide is always complicated.

Think on this

  • the vast majority of those who die by suicide suffer from major depression
  • suicidal ideation isn't "epidemic"-> it isn't catching like a virus (this is further stigmatizing language)
  • mental illness are TREATABLE. often folks remain in a state of instability because of the ways in which our communities refuse to take good care of those who are ill among us. 
  • survivors of suicide require a very specific level of care. we must do the work to create better communities where these folks have space to grieve and mend at their pace.

Do you have a loved one who is at risk? Are you at risk?