Shame, Stigma, and Suicidality

Shame stigma and suicidalityMany people feel ashamed of their suicidal thoughts. This shame can be about any number of things, often contradictory: thinking of suicide, being unable to stop thinking of suicide, not acting on suicidal thoughts, acting on suicidal thoughts, and so on.

Shame especially can follow a suicide attempt. One small study found that most of the people interviewed felt shame related to their attempt, whether for not living up to others’ expectations or, painfully, for having survived.

Shame and Suicidality: Cause or Effect?

Just as suicidal thoughts can lead to shame, shame can lead to suicidal thoughts. It is a merciless cycle of pain: one begets the other.

 “Thinking of suicide means I’m weak,” clients have told me.

“I’m a loser, a failure.”

“I should be able to cope.”

“I’m a bad person.”

Lost in all the self-condemnation is the understanding and acceptance of suicidal thoughts as a symptom. Suicidal thoughts can be a symptom of a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. Or you may not have a mental illness. Suicidal thoughts also can serve instead as a symptom of extreme stress, overwhelming painful emotions, a sense of despair and hopelessness, or some other situation that the person experiences as unbearable.

Suicidal thoughts are not who you are. They do not define you. Instead, they happen to you. The same is true of conditions and situations that can lead to suicidality: depression, anxiety, trauma, schizophrenia, addiction, and other mental health issues. These conditions do not touch your truest, deepest self, what some may refer to as your soul or your essence.

Close Cousins: Shame and Stigma

It’s hard to talk about shame about suicidality without also talking about stigma. Shame comes from inside the person. It is an emotion, an internal feeling of disgrace. Stigma, on the other hand, comes from outside the person. It is a mark of disgrace. Stigma comes from the messages that society sends out, messages that there is something fundamentally bad about people if they have certain conditions or qualities. 

There is a tremendous amount of stigma toward people who think about, attempt or die by suicide. Many movies, press accounts, even random comments on the Internet portray suicidal individuals as cowardly, weak, selfish, defective – and so on. This harmful stigma ignores facts about biology, in particular neurobiology, illness, and the functioning of the brain.

Most importantly, stigma feeds into shame. Stigma reinforces for the suicidal person the idea that something is bad about him or her. And stigma causes many people not to seek help.  They simply are too embarrassed, too frightened, too ashamed.

What to Do?

Rather than viewing suicidal thoughts as a character flaw, it is more helpful to look at their underlying meaning. What are your suicidal thoughts telling you that you need?

If you are thinking of dying, it could mean that you need to leave a toxic relationship, or quit a job, or learn new ways to cope, or do any number of things that might allow you to experience less pain without killing yourself. Your suicidal thoughts likewise could be a signal that you need a change in medication, or therapy, or more connection with others.

The shame itself is telling you something, too. It is telling you that you may have a wound, an injury deep inside of you that needs healing. You may even identify this wound as your self, you true self, not as a piece of your past.

Psychotherapy can help. So can other things. The practice of mindfulness meditation helps people to observe that their thoughts and feelings do not constitute their essence. Practicing compassion toward oneself can also help a person separate their selfhood from their problems or symptoms.

Finally, reading about shame and its antidotes is a powerful tonic. In particular, I recommend the works of Brené Brown. A good place to start is her Ted Talks: Listening to Shame, and The Power of Vulnerability.


© 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, All Rights Reserved, Written for

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  1. wittie says:

    Funny you should mention “shame” and “stigmas”.
    Obviously I survived my suicide attempt. I was in a coma for three days, then in a psych ward for about a week.
    The “shame” and “stigmas” came FROM THE MENTAL HEALTH “PROFESSIONALS”.
    I was told by the psychiatric nurse, the psychiatrist at the psych ward, and the psychiatrist that I had used as a follow up, that my suicide attempt was “selfish” and that I “ought to be ashamed”.
    The only person that treated me like a human being suggested that I make a “bucket list” of things I want to do before I die. Funny, that, but well intended at least.
    The irony is that I wasn’t suicidal until my physician had put me on Paxil. I was NOT a young adult.
    Here is the REAL SHAME: I have a metabolic disorder. It was misdiagnosed for DECADES because the thyroid levels were within “normal values”. . . for an 80 year old!
    I am not saying that medications can’t help; nor am I saying that all mental health “professionals” are unqualified or unsympathetic but I do believe that the heavy reliance upon medication over compassion, upon “labeling” (which you would call “diagnosing”) over listening, and upon “models and methods” over meaningful, authentic dialogue actually further perpetuate the stigmas attached to suicidality.
    A person can be suicidal and NOT mentally ill.
    A person can be mentally ill and still be rational.
    What I can say is that the over-dependence upon pharmaceuticals (you should hear what my friend’s sister is on, or another friend’s son: they are incapacitated by the cocktail of drugs they are prescribed by psychiatrists who seem to have forgotten their Hippocratic Oath) and the marginalization by the “health care community” of people in varying degrees of struggle and crisis ought to be criminalized, as it further damages the population it is supposed to protect and help.
    This has become big business for the pharmaceutical companies. Becoming a psychotherapist has become a lucrative career. There’s money in keeping people weak and dependent. There’s an illusion of superiority in putting down people in crisis as “sick”.
    Ms. Freedenthal, I am sure you have the best of intentions, but your field of practice has some reflecting to do on its assumptions, practices, and assessing outcomes.
    As for me, I will never subject myself to the humiliation of “modern psychology/psychiatry” again.My last attempt at setting up an appointment to just speak with someone (to reveal and evaluate some of my assumptions regarding life and to develop better coping mechanisms) was met with that “professional” trying to get me to buy into one of her workshops which she declared “perfect” for me without ever having met me and without even knowing the reason I’d contacted her. I’m done being a cash cow for this industry.
    Why am I angry? Because I don’t live in some rural town with few resources, these people and programs are the best of the best in my area. What infuriates me? The fact that that powerless people, the truly mentally ill, the naive, the young are completely at their mercy.

  2. Colby S says:

    And what hurts me so much more than wanting to die… is that everyone who knows how much I hurt, they actually, really do love me less for it. We all think – or at least I used to – that people might want to help if I let them in, or ask for it. But people don’t want to help. They want me to just stop being me, and be something else or go and stay far away from them. I barely say anything to anyone but everytime I have, all my friends just started to ignore me. I hate this “positive thinking” movement because it’s simply false. At least 50% of the world is negative. If all the world accepts is what’s positive, then no wonder I’m so alone.

    • Teresa says:

      Does the loneliness ever go away? I agree with you on the positive thinking point.i think this positive thinking movement stigmatizes suicidal people and people who are depressed. To me it’s exhausting trying to pretend to be happy for other people.

  3. Colby S says:

    I am condemned and essentially “left to die” by anyone I’ve ever opened up to about my suicidal thoughts. I wish everyday I was dead, and apparently that would mean almost nothing to people I’ve cared about. So I just don’t care anymore. I’m not going to hide how much I hate myself and life. No more apologies. Fuck all of you (not YOU, but the people who judge me). I feel what I feel and that’s that. So, goodbye.

  4. Brenda S says:

    Yes, suicide is the last straw we grasp ! It is the final thought of how can I stop this pain! Sometimes it’s even a thought of , ” they won’t have me to pick on anymore. Or simply, I can’t take this anymore .. When I have decided to end it , a calm comes over you. You feel finally like the decision to finally do it is clear and you feel like all weight has been lifted. You don’t care anymore. At all. It’s clear what you must do and you do it.When you’re in that phase you want to do it but you are afraid and you know it’s final…you’re not coming back… you try to find a reason to live. Unfortunately the right ppl to talk to are not who you want to talk to. They can say all they want. It’s that one person you want to care. They DON’T. And they will goad you into doing it. They’ll tell you… go ahead… do it! That’s when you give up all hope.I actually sat on the phone, popping pills , and talking and crying and he just sat there on the other end.. listening to me doing it and laughing. He thought it was funny. He told me he didn’t care. Told me how stupid I was. Crazy. Dumb. I asked him if it would make him happy! He claimed it wouldn’t but he didn’t do anything. Just called me names and told me how retarded I was and so on.I guess I must have passed out and I woke up two days later. Apparently he came over and took my kid to hisd house and left me there. He couldn’t have been to concerned to bother to call a doctor or anything cause I just woke up days later on the couch…soaked and not knowing what happened. THE TRUTH IS… When you are ready to go…and no one can stop you except that one person, and they couldn’t care less, that’s it. You go, FUCK this …and do it…a and you die if you do it right . I never once got it right. Even in death I’m a FUCK up!!! Then that person does more damage. They laugh at you more cause YOU’RE still there! But you realize they couldn’t care less… not even when you try to kill yourself, so you just stop living …sleep all day and night… because YOU’RE so depressed . You realize no one would even care if you died either so what’s the point of that too. So here I am. Alive but dead . Dead. Inside. And dead is how you stay. Until you do die . Finally. With gratitude!!! And you know even God doesn’t want you.I don’t care. I’m dead inside and outside. I cry all the time but no one knows .
    And no one cares if they did That’s my life . Hahahaha… ain’t it great. 🙂 : ( ………………………………………………………………. (((((………………………..

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear Brenda,
      You deserve better than the man you described in your letter!

    • Anonymous says:

      Brenda S, you post breaks my heart. I do not know you, but I want to tell you, you are loved, beautiful and a wonderful person. I am so very sorry that the conversation you had was so wrong. There are some people that can not understand the pain someone is going through and I want to tell you I will be here for you. Anytime you ever want to vent or talk you are more than welcome to message me. When someone tells you to “go ahead” STOP speaking to them! There are people all around you that will reach out to you, I am one! I do care!! I do understand sleeping all day and not really wanting to be here. My son ended his life 2 and a half years ago. Please understand that is not the answer. You are here for a reason!! Please believe You are alive NOT dead! I hope you see this message and know that depression is not shameful, it is something that can be handled. It might take a little tweeking to get you where you need to be but you have to try. My email is [see note below], my phone number is [see note below]. Anytime!!!! People do care!!!!!! I care!!!!!XOXO

      Brenda, the person who left this comment did leave a phone number and email address. I did not think it wise for it to be posted openly on the Internet, so I removed it. Please email me at if you want to contact the author of this comment. – Stacey Freedenthal.

    • Enrique says:

      Brenda my daughter died of suicide. Please get away from that insecure bully coward. And please get help with your depression. John