Stigmatizing Suicide by Silencing Shame

By Anonymous

Trigger warning: suicide

To say that I am a suicide attempt survivor seems to insinuate that I am proud of it. I am not. There is something incredibly invalidating about stories of suicide recovery told by those identifying as suicide survivors. To me, when I say I've survived something, it's because I wanted to and I feel accomplished that I did. When I tried to kill myself, I wanted to die and I didn't succeed in doing so. I didn't accomplish survival- I failed to die. 

This is not to take away from those who do identify as attempt survivors and who are grateful that they continued living- I think that's great. But I think that we need to acknowledge the shame and embarrassment that can result from an incomplete suicide. No one talks about it and I think no one talks about it because, as a society, we are afraid to think about death as a valid choice. We take it for granted that life is the best option, and maybe it is, but this doesn't discount the fact that when individuals attempt suicide, it's because that is the only best option they see in that moment. If we truly want to decrease the stigma around suicide, the first thing we would do is recognize that. Because by not acknowledging the shame and embarrassment, we are in fact creating more silence around suicide and reinforcing the never ending stigma we all fight against. 

Mainstream mental health advocates don't like to use the term 'failed' or 'unsuccessful' suicide, because it places a negative connotation on the act or ascribes shame onto the person. But I think that only producing a narrative that assumes every individual should be grateful to still be alive is unrealistic and harmful. It's ok to feel grateful that you are alive but I don't think that's something we should presuppose for everyone. From my experience, not succeeding in killing myself has felt like a failure and there is still shame. Except that there is no place for me to talk about these feelings because they simply don't allign with the anti-stigma, pro-hope, life-matters narrative. So I stay silent. 

I stay silent because, ironically enough, there is stigma around shame. Around feeling shame and talking about shame. But shame is valid, especially when it is the result of something as important as a life or death moment. We seem to think that we can skip over the shame of an unsuccessful suicide attempt and move right to feeling hopeful as if not succeeding in dying automatically means we should have hope in living. But this is often not the case. We don't create space for someone to feel embarrassed and frustrated with themselves because we are too busy making sure they want to live again. We are too busy trying to infuse hope into them. 

Don't get me wrong, hope is a great thing. But hope is only a great thing until you lose it. Then it becomes something you resent, something so far from reach you settle into a chronic cycle of hopelessness. To tackle suicide prevention by repeatedly telling potentially suicidal people that there is always hope and that it gets better is discouraging and ineffective. 

I think that, overall, the fact that we don't generally talk about shame is in itself stigmatizing. No, we shouldn't place shame onto others, but it is alright to feel shame in ourselves and that's something we should be able to talk about. No, I shouldn't be ashamed that I struggle with mental illness, but sometimes I do feel that way and that's ok. Decreasing stigma doesn't equate to erasing shame, it means we should recognize and embrace it. That, for me, would be healing. 

 I want to be able to talk about feeling suicidal as if it is a valid and ok way to feel. I want to be able to talk about being ashamed I failed to kill myself. Yes, there is validation in saying "I tried to kill myself and that's ok." but there should be equal validation in saying "I failed to kill myself and that's embarassing". I want to talk about 'surviving' a suicide attempt not in a way that is something I should be proud of, but something I am ashamed of. 

 There should be room for more than one narrative around suicide. We can augment the voice of suicide attempt survivors who feel happy to be alive, but however well intentioned those voices are, they can still be painful. By only acknowledging their voices, we are silencing the rest. We are silencing those who haven't found hope, who haven't recovered, who haven't experienced it getting better. 

I am not saying we should encourage suicide or encourage feeling ashamed about attempting suicide. Suicide prevention is absolutely important. I'm saying we need to find a balance between promoting life and validating death. Fighting stigma shouldn't silence those who feel shame, especially shame around suicidality. We need to talk about it in a way that is safe, validating, and empathetic. Because, often, what makes us feel ok is just knowing that what we're feeling is ok.


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