Talking openly about mental health reduces stigma

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We were all sitting in the living room, staring into space, not a word between us. It was the loudest silence I have ever heard. This was the scene in my house a few hours after my family learned that my Uncle David had committed suicide.

The news came piece by piece. At first, I was only told that he died suddenly. A few hours later, my mother informed me that it was a suicide. Uncle David committed suicide the day before, while my aunt Josefina and cousin Jamie were away from the house.

When the initial shock dissipated, after that first day filled with silence, a new question entered our minds: What do we do now? For my aunt and cousin, the road ahead was full of uncertainties. Their family’s main breadwinner was gone, and now serious financial hardship was added to their heartache. Everything from paying their mortgage to paying Jamie’s tuition and even food on the table has become a struggle. And to add insult to injury, they likely wouldn’t benefit from insurance due to Uncle David’s cause of death.

In addition, many logistical tasks had to be carried out. The funeral was to take place soon, in just a few days. We worked with the funeral home, visited the cemetery where Uncle David would be buried, and planned the gathering after the funeral. We chose black outfits. We wrote an obituary.

The planning seemed to keep everyone busy and temporarily put the heartache aside so the necessary work could be done. But on the morning of the funeral, great silence returned as we all went to the funeral service.

As I looked around the grave, I was struck by the size of the crowd, and that’s when the scale of the suicide became clear. It reaches people in waves, in layers that extend far beyond the immediate family. It reaches in-laws, friends, coworkers, neighbors, teachers, bosses, childhood buddies and many more. Such a tragedy can collapse an entire ecosystem of people in a second, leaving dozens of people speechless, faced with the same deafening silence in their own home that I have known in mine. If it takes a village to raise a person, it also takes a village to mourn them.

Unfortunately, the scene I have described is familiar to far too many villages and too many families. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, showing the scale of the mental health crisis in this country and around the world. This crisis was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as 4 in 10 adults in the United States reported suffering from anxiety or depression since the start of the pandemic.

The crisis is also compounded by the destructive stigma of mental illness, which contributes to the desire to keep suicide deaths a secret. When Uncle David died, many of my family felt not only sadness and shock, but embarrassment as well. They didn’t know if people would judge David for what had happened or think less of him. It was all the more painful since my Uncle David was a truly wonderful man who lived his life like everyone else. He was a fiercely devoted father, he loved barbecues and camping, and he was a connoisseur of stand-up comedy. His mental illness does not define him, nor does his cause of death.

Given the massive scale of the mental health crisis, the question “what do we do now?” is global. For the sake of our loved ones and fellow human beings, the answer is clear. We must work together to break the stigma of mental illness so that those who suffer do not have to suffer alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers several suggestions for reducing stigma, such as speaking openly about mental health, being compassionate towards people with mental illness, and addressing self-stigma.

While these suggestions seem easy in theory, they are much more difficult in practice. When it is you or a member of your family who is struggling, it takes a lot of courage to speak up. So, to honor those we have lost by suicide, and to support those who are still here, please be courageous. Please talk about it.

I hope that by sharing my family story we can keep the memory of my Uncle David alive and remove the stigma so those who need help have the courage to seek it out.

Grace James is a resident of Centerville, Ohio, and is currently a graduate student at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

Grace James


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