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Myths About Suicide: Correcting Mental Health Stigma

Sep 09, 2016

This is part three of a three-part series on myths surrounding suicide.

Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental illness creates shame, distress, and reluctance to get help. Studies show that:

  • 3 out of 4 people with a mental illness have experienced stigma
  • 1 in 4 people see depression as a sign of weakness
  • 1 in 5 people say that if they had depression they would hide it from others

Myths that contribute to mental health stigma.      

We’ve all heard, and likely perpetuated, the myth: “Teens who try to kill themselves must be crazy.” We use words like, “crazy” (or even “nuts,” “mental,” or “psycho”) as insults all too often in our daily conversations, which makes this myth hugely problematic:

  • The majority of people (around 90%) who do take their lives were suffering with an underlying mental illness – most commonly depression – or substance abuse problem at the time of their deaths, BUT this does not make them “crazy.”
  • Around 10% of all suicidal people are suffering from psychosis, or have delusional beliefs about reality. Again, this does not make those individuals “crazy,” but rather severely mentally ill and in need of help.
  • Labeling someone “crazy” fosters shame and may lead one to avoid getting support for very real health issues. The fear of being called “crazy” stops people from seeking professional treatment that can lift depression and minimize the risk of suicide.

It is important to note that millions of people who live with depression never attempt suicide. It is when people with depression start feeling hopeless and helpless, and their pain exceeds their resources for coping with pain, that suicide is most likely to occur.

Speaking of hopelessness and helplessness, let’s discuss another problematic myth: “Teens who are suicidal don’t want help – they never seek or ask for help.”

Why this is untrue.

  • Almost half of people who have died by suicide visited their primary care physician within a month of their death.
  • Teens will reach out to peers or trusted adults who show they are willing to listen. We should not assume that it is easy or natural to talk about suicidal feelings, however. We need to invite this conversation with understanding and compassion. Then we need to help those individuals get linked with professional supports.
  • The myth that all teens are moody and cannot have “real depression” interferes with a full understanding of this mental disorder that can impact one’s life in many ways including relationships, academics, health, and mood.
  • Teens who are suicidal may not know where to start or don’t think anything will help – a “tunnel vision” accompanies depression that can get so bad that everything seems hopeless, even the prospect of getting help.
  • Teens may be afraid that if they try to get help they won’t be taken seriously, they will be told they are “crazy,” sinful, manipulative, or stupid, and that they’ll be rejected by their friends or punished by adults in their lives.

Stopping stigma in its tracks: How we all can play a role.

  1. Stop using words like “crazy.” If you’re referring to a person, discuss their problematic behaviors instead of labeling them as “crazy.”
  2. Learn and share accurate information about mental illness.
  3. Speak up when your friends and family perpetuate negative stereotypes and myths about depression and suicide.
  4. Offer nonjudgmental support to your teen if they are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.
  5. Talk openly and sensitively about mental illness, even your own. If you feel comfortable doing so it will inspire others to do the same and shatter the idea that mental illness should be concealed.
  6. Even if they’re doing really well, talk with your kids about their feelings and how they’re coping with the stresses of life. This sets the tone that it’s okay to talk about tough times and emotional challenges.

If we all pitch in, we can live in a stigma-free world where everyone with mental illness feels supported to reach out for the help they deserve.

If someone is depressed, it takes tremendous strength to talk about it and get help. Increasing our acceptance and showing encouragement to those who take this step can go a long way. Support is crucial if you or a loved one is depressed or contemplating suicide. Please know that there is help. Depression is treatable and there are many effective treatment options that will meet needs. If you or your child need immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. If there is an immediate safety concern, call 911 or go the nearest emergency room.

For more information on Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Behavioral Health services, click here or listen to our PediaCast.

Featured Expert

NCH Blog Author
Elizabeth A. Cannon, LPCC
Behavioral Health

Elizabeth is a clinical mental health counselor with years of experience working with children and families in the school and community setting. Her interests include eliminating mental health stigma, social justice, and family-centered care.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.