Fighting stigma is critical to suicide prevention efforts for two reasons.
Stigma discourages people suffering with a mental illness from seeking help. Of all those who live with a mental disorder, only 1 in 5 seeks help. To reduce suicide we must change how we respond to mental illness and thoughts of self-harm.
While misinformation might explain why stigma exists, it doesn’t excuse its persistence. Stigma is a form of prejudice, and it leads to discrimination. It is our responsibility as a community to stand against it. Fighting stigma will help us change our society from one where people are embarrassed to seek help for mental health problems, to one where taking care of your mental health is the smart thing to do.
The second reason why fighting stigma is important may be less obvious.
We tend to think of stigma as something that impedes progress. Towards suicide prevention, however, it also complicates the experience of losing a loved one to suicide. In the context of suicide bereavement, the ugliness of stigma is stark.
When a parent loses a child to suicide, they often feel shame in addition to grief. Silence greets their loss as friends and family often lack the words, unsure of what is “appropriate.” Their child lost a battle with mental illness, just like people lose battles with cancer or heart disease. If we overcome our fear of talking about the circumstances that led to suicide, we can give the surviving family members the same compassion that we extend to those who lose someone to other causes of death.
Stigma’s effects conceal the depth of the problem in our society. Silence in the face of stigma makes suicide less urgent, and therefore more difficult to rally people to take action against it.
The reality is that suicide takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. And yet too many people still don’t want to talk about it. Suicide is the last great health issue of our time. We have to talk about it. The lives of our families and friends and neighbors and colleagues depend on it.
Robert Gebbia has been the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention since 1998. As CEO, Mr. Gebbia is responsible for the overall management of the organization and developing strategies to support its mission: expanding suicide prevention by funding scientific research, adding new educational programs, public awareness initiatives, national and local advocacy campaigns, and supportive services for individuals and families that have lost a loved one to suicide.
Mr. Gebbia works closely with nationally recognized scientists in suicide research, business, civic and political leaders, professional associations and people personally impacted by suicide. He holds a BA in Sociology from Hofstra University, and an MA in Sociology from the New School for Social Research.