Sunday, February 1, 2009

A mother once emailed me, after viewing my exhibit, and told me that her son had died from suicide. She refused to say he "commit" suicide. She viewed her son's death as a direct result of his mental illness. I agree with her because my own brother has attempted suicide, thankfully he has not succeeded. These attempts were made in order to escape psychosis, the pain and a lower quality of life. This is sad since life can improve with the help of medicine, therapy and family support. Another woman I know (who lost her sister to suicide), was not allowed to talk about her feelings with her family. Her mother called it an accident. Her father never mentioned his deceased daughter's name again. Very sad.

Many view suicide as shameful act; unethical and immoral in most cultures. Lack of awareness and lack of empathy prevent our society from viewing suicide as a way to cope with severe and chronic illnesses. Death from cancer (for instance) is thought to be out of the person's control. Mental illness is also out of a person's control, yet we criticize those who die from suicide. When someone dies from cancer, he or she will be viewed as a victim. When someone dies from suicide, he or she usually dies feeling very alone. The individual is  viewed as a quitter, not a victim. Over ninety percent of people who die from suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. This is reason enough to believe that suicide is sometimes the only way one can cope. I don't think we have the right to judge since we are not experiencing the intense emotional turnmoil that may trigger suicide. 

But can suicide be prevented? I have often asked myself this same question. I think that the more accepted mental illness becomes, the more open others will be to discussing their thoughts of suicide. Instead, those suffering feel as if their mental illness is their fault. (Side note, I am watching Jennifer Hudson sing the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the Super Bowl right now, just trying to hold back the tears :) If suicide is the direct result of untreated mental illness, then how can we improve the incidence of recovery? One reason why individuals will not seek treatment is due to stigma. This stigma can cause most to feel alone. You become unacceptable to society and as a result, begin to question your future. Education and awareness may cause others to embrace those with a mental disorder. It makes me sad to think that certain illnesses are acceptable over others. 

The individuals in the above image (from left to right) are: Donny Hathaway (recording artist, suffered from schizophrenia, died due to self-inflicted fall from a hotel window), Kurt Cobain (songwriter, guitarist for grunge band, Nirvana, battled possible manic depression and drug addiction, died from self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head), Vincent van Gogh (pioneer of Expressionism, suffered from mental illness, died to to self-inflicted gun shot wound), Elliott Smith (singer-songwriter and musician, battled depression, alcoholism and drug addiction, died from two stab wounds to the chest)


  1. Yes, suicide is preventable. It is preventable when mental illness is not associated with shame, guilt, and fear which is inextricably linked to stigma, but it is also connected to how someone is cared for when they are diagnosed, i.e., the quality of care offered by government programs and the amount of positive support given to caregivers be they family or other entity. Amber, you and I have a loved one who suffers from serious mental illness, and we are aware of the risks to them and take precautions to know the signs and symptoms of distress. The statistics for depression in our culture are unbelieveable with a very high percentage suffering at some time in their life with depression, and these people are at risk but might not have anyone observing them for signs and symptoms. Stigma affects these people also because it might affect their job or personal status if it were discovered they were treated for depression. In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was chosen as McGovern's running mate for president, but when news came out that he had suffered from depression in the 60's and had ETC, public and political pressure forced him into removing himself from the ticket. Things haven't changed much since then.

    Stigma affects those with illness directly, but it also interfers with how effective programs are funded and operate. Funding for responsible, sound programs begins with federal and state funding which is initiated and supported by congressional people. They have the power to set precedence. And this is where grass roots efforts of individuals like yourself and your art exhibit can bring national awareness to the forefront and dispell fear and shame of mental illness.

    A woman on developed a post card to send to congressional representatives, and I applaud her efforts, for it is through these kinds of actions that the message will reach the people who are in the position to make changes on a national scale. She is making a few adjustments to the card, and I will post the link here when she finishes it.

    You spoke of those who have committed suicide. Sadly, the list of creative people is too long: Sylvia Plath, Enest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, recently David Foster Wallace.

    We need to help people understand that there is no weakness or shame in asking for help no matter the degree of distress. We read about the high incidence of suicide among teenagers as well, could this be related to lack of communication because of fear of rejection or being judged unfairly. This is a form of stigma as well.

    I support all efforts to raise awareness and be diligent with all lines of action that will nurture understanding and tolerance rather than encourage fear, guilt and shame.

  2. Hi AC,

    Your posts are moving and insightful. I enjoy reading them and learn a lot.

    Would you like to read my blog?

    I'd love to hear what you think of it.

    You so inspire me.

    Good luck with your anti-stigma efforts, and with the mental health board.

    Best wishes,