Shame, Stigma, and Suicidality

Many 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 www.speakingofsuicide.com

Photo purchased from Fotolia.com

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  1. Paul says:

    I struggle daily to find reasons to be here. I’ve tried, God knows I have. Its at that point where its starting to scare me. I’ve thought about suicide from a young age, around 13. I’m now 34and I’ve lost that sense of wonder for life. Talking does nothing. Being with family and friends does nothing. I’ve started taking down my social media accounts. I’ve started giving away personal belongings. I feel that I am inevitably moving into the next part. I know these actions rip families apart, but I cant be strong for them anymore. I cant be here just for them.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Paul,

      Please let a friend or family member know what you’re going through.

      Please, also, talk to a therapist, doctor, minister, or another professional about what you’re thinking and feeling.

      You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255 (TALK) or use the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. I also list other resources here.

      I know you said you can’t be here just for your family. One day you might be grateful you are here just for you, too.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Any suicide is a great loss, it’s a shame to go to a dark senseless place within ourselves that we cannot reach what life has for us. Feeling and emotional troubles we can control by just not going there and force attention on something else not yourself that selfish. Suicide is a selfish act and should not be a choice.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment. I know many people do think that suicide is selfish, but I think that misplaces blame. The blame belongs to the illness, stress, or trauma that compels a person to die by suicide, not to the suicide itself, in my opinion. I write more about that in my post, “Is It Selfish to Die in a Tornado?”

      That said, because you also posted on my Facebook page in relation to Stephanie’s comment that her son would be better off without her, I appreciate the point that I think you’re trying to make, which is that someone who is suicidal should not devalue or minimize their importance to others. On that, I agree.

  3. Stephanie says:

    I have severe eating issues and depression, I truly believe my 7 year old son will be better off if I’m gone. I’m scared he’ll end up like me. Surely he has a better chance of being normal without his mother’s issues to worry about? His dad is a doting father with no issues who can bring him up without the burden of his selfish wife.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Stephanie,

      I’m so sad you feel that way. I have to tell you, I think you’re wrong. I think it’s the depression talking when you say your son will be better off and “has a better chance of being normal” with you dead. Depression makes people believe things that they would never believe if they were well. (To be clear, I myself am not diagnosing you with depression, nor could I; rather, I’m relying on your report that you have depression. Even without depression, though, the suicidal mind can convince us of lies and blind us to truths.)

      I wish you could speak with people who lost their mother to suicide when they were a child (or at any age, really). I have talked to many, and I can tell you that it was a deeply traumatic loss for them, one from which they never fully recovered. For many people, it opened the door to suicide, and they have had a very hard time resisting following in their mother’s path.

      I say this not to “guilt” you but to point out that depression is telling you lies, and you don’t have to believe them.

      Please consider getting help and telling the helper what you said here. Maybe start with any of the resources listed here, like the national lifeline at 800.273.8255 or the text line at 741-741. There are also a lot of resources around eating disorders, listed here.

      Wherever you get help, please do get help. And please, as they say in my field, don’t believe everything you think.

    • Allison Patton says:

      He would not, trust me. I’m bipolar and thought the same thing. I tried to kill myself a bit over a year ago. At that time in my heart I thought it was best. My teenagers found out and just trying to do that caused them so much pain. After losing someone I love so deeply to suicide shortly after that made me realize how horrible it would’ve been for them. Life altering horrible. Take your meds, go to therapy, get sunshine, and have a plan in place when you feel that way. I understand what you feel. I now know that the pain you feel is nothing compared to the pain it would cause your entire family and friends. Please talk to someone. Email me if you want. I will advocate for mental health for the rest of my life even as I struggle with it.

    • Kristin says:

      Hi Stephanie,
      I’m so sorry you are in so much pain. Coming from someone who was the child of a frequently suicidal mother who had multiple suicide attempts while I was growing up, I can assure you that your son would not be better off without you.

      With my mom, as challenging as it was at times to see her in that much pain, it was challenging because I loved her. It was challenging because I needed her, and I was terrified her struggle would take her away from me. Was it easy growing up
      with a mother in so much emotional pain? No, but the thought of losing her was even more terrifying.

      I wanted her to teach me to drive. I wanted her to send me off to prom and college. I wanted her to be at my wedding, helping me to get into my wedding dress and telling me how beautiful I looked through tears. I wanted her at the hospital with me when I had my first child. I wanted her to love on my children and spoil them. I wanted her at holidays and birthdays, celebrations and funerals. I wanted to be able to call her with good news and sometimes just because I wanted to talk. I needed her to keep living and walking through life together, whatever that meant. And I longed for her to feel better, not for my sake, but for hers.

      I am 28 now, and my mother is thankfully still with us. She’s had therapy and finally has found a medication that works for her. It took a little bit to find a therapist with the right experience, but we have one now. My mom actually is the healthiest she has ever been and we are the closest we have ever been. She is not severely depressed on a frequent basis and hasn’t seriously contemplated suicide in years. We ended up going on vacation instead of me going to prom (haha), but she’s been able to do a lot of those other things with me. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. I have other family members and female mentors that would have likely stepped in to support me if my mom would have died by suicide, but it still wouldn’t have been the same. I needed my mom, and as much as it may not feel like it right now, your son needs and will continue to need his mom too.

      I know what you are feeling is terrifying, but know that feeling as overwhelmed as you are right now is temporary. Think about it: if you’ve been depressed before, at some point your feelings changed or you felt some relief (even if it was a little bit) that made things a little more manageable. That applies this time too. If you can hold on, things will change. And there are actual interventions that can help to rebalance the brain chemistry that is causing these thoughts. In addition to research that supports that recovery is possible, my mom is proof that even after years of depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, there is still hope.

      Stephanie, you can’t and shouldn’t have to navigate this alone though. I would be happy to find some resources in your community to walk with you through this, and I am sure Dr. Freedenthal would have some as well.

      Feel free to email me or reach out to us here and let us know what community you are in so that we can make sure you don’t have to do this alone. [Stephanie, if you’d like to email Kristin, please send it to me at sfreedenthal@gmail.com and I will forward it to her. – SF]

      Sending you much love and care from a child who is eternally grateful her mother survived.

      • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

        Kristin,

        What beautiful and loving words of support for Stephanie. I thank you for sharing so generously of yourself. And I agree wholeheartedly with all that you said here.

        I’m sorry that you, your mother, and your family faced such pain and challenges when you were growing up. Your words here are a testament to the fact that gifts can come from suffering; you clearly have great empathy for others and appreciation for the goodness in your life and the lives of those you care about. Of course, I can’t know that you wouldn’t have had these gifts otherwise, but I can say for certain that your mother’s challenges did not destroy these gifts in you and might even have cultivated or enhanced them.

        Thank you again!

        Stacey

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Stephanie,

      I invited people on SpeakingOfSuicide.com’s Facebook site to respond to your comment, because I suspected there were people with intimate experience who could challenge your sense that your son would be better off without you.

      Somebody posted a link to a Reddit group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. I can’t vouch for the group, as I haven’t read through all the comments, but people’s comments seem to reveal the anguish and trauma that follow a friend or family member’s suicide. Here’s the link if you’d like to see: https://www.reddit.com/r/SuicideBereavement/

      I want to say that I have great empathy for how painful it is to feel that others, including your child, would be better off without you. My intention here isn’t to talk you out of those feelings, necessarily, but to urge you to question them yourself. And to get help if you are unable to do so, because you deserve to feel better. Thank you.

      • Stephanie says:

        Dear Stacey,
        You have absolutely no idea how much your words and those of others have given me a tiny piece of hope today. I am truly grateful and humbled that people could think my issues important enough to respond……to have an insight that my most precious son could be OK with me in his life makes me question my darkest too frequent thoughts. I have never believed anyone can understand or help because in my mind it has always been “How can words from others help?” I’m still not sure which way to turn. I have never reached out to any type of forum, but feel these responses have helped more than any previous attempts to find help/support through the UK medical system. I hate sounding dramatic, but humanity has surprised me today.
        Yours thankfully and with hope,
        Stephanie

      • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

        Stephanie,

        I am delighted that the words you read here have given you some hope. So often, words are empty, but in this case it seems that our comments helped you see that a) you matter, and b) you might not be thinking very rationally when your mind tells you your son would be better off without you.

        I hope you will continue to reach out to others and to be receptive to what they say. There are a number of places listed on the Resources page where you can get help by phone, text, email, and chat; though they are primarily U.S.-based, some are international. I am hoping for the best for you and your family, Stephanie!

    • Joslyn Falcon says:

      Stephanie,
      I am so sorry that you are feeling this way. I just wanted to reach out and give you my perspective, I lost my mom to suicide when I was 12. I miss her every day, I am now 42. I was never at any point in my life better off with out her. I know she thought she was leaving me with a great Dad too, but nothing ever replaces the love of your mother. Every milestone in your life you go through the grieving process all over again. I also struggle with my own depression and anxiety and know my mom and to feel so hopless to do what she did. I know she loved me. I also lost my dad to suicide 3 years ago as well. Its been a hard journey but I take it one day at a time, sometimes one second at a time. If you ever need someone to talk to please feel free to reach out to me. I know how much an understanding ear can mean.

    • Kristie Townsend says:

      I lost my mother to suicide when I was seven years old. There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about her. I spent many years resenting my mum for leaving me. I even tried to take my own life on several occasions. It’s only since being diagnosed with BPD and receiving specialised grief counselling (only within the past ten months) that I have began to empathise with her. I’m working on for giving her …. I’m a 44 year old woman now…. but the pain of that loss is just as profound today as it ever was…. I hope that you begin to feel better soon… xx

      • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

        Thank you for sharing, Kristie. I am so sorry for your traumatic loss and subsequent suffering. It was very generous of you to share here in the service of helping Stephanie and many others; you will never know just how many people your words touch, but I’m certain there will be others. May your own healing continue!

  4. 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.

  5. 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH0m5B3PQUU

    • 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 sfreedenthal@gmail.com 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

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