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The Suicide Stigma: Why Victims’ Families Deserve Better

When I read the news story about Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington’s death by suicide in July of 2017, I did what I always do after reading tragic news online. I waded into the sea of comments the article generated.

Dozens of fans expressed their shock, sorrow and condolences for Bennington’s surviving family. Many told moving personal anecdotes about how much the singer’s music had meant to them or how Bennington’s openness with his own mental health issues and childhood sexual abuse helped them navigate their own dark times.

But it was a comment by a user called Melio123 that impacted me most. The comment read:

My heart breaks for his children bc that’s the image he leaves them with, Dad hanging, and a message that they weren’t important enough. They say suicide is a selfish act, and it is …

Why was I so affected by the statement?

By internet comment standards, Melio’s take on the subject was relatively tame. It wasn’t even in the same category as the hate-filled bile you see from seasoned trolls. But still it got to me. Maybe it was because I could easily envision one of Bennington’s own children stumbling onto the comment the same way I did, by trying to take comfort in the all messages of love and support from his dad’s fans. Maybe it was because the comment was posted so soon after the story broke.

Most likely, though, it was because I knew the person meant every word of that ignorant comment. After all, Melio’s opinion, that suicide is essentially a cowardly, selfish act, is far from unique. So many of my otherwise emphatic and educated friends believe suicide comes down to a simple choice people make to give up on life.

Most of the people who subscribe to this opinion have no real experience with the disease that causes individuals to end their own life. They just have their opinion. It’s an opinion often rooted in their personal belief that, no matter how bad things became for them, they’d never in a million years make a decision that would cause their loved ones so much pain.

Of course, such an opinion is fundamentally flawed because, unlike a suicide victim, the person who thinks the decision not end one’s life comes down to strength and courage has a healthy brain. It’s like a person with sight commenting on what they’d be like as a blind person.

This mindset also perpetuates a dangerous stigma, a stigma that mainly hurts surrounding victims’ families, particularly their children. The loss of a parent is traumatic enough for a child. But when that loss comes through suicide, the impact of that trauma increases exponentially.

What’s worse, losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing major psychiatric disorders, according to a 2010 Johns Hopkins Children’s Center study. 

On top of the normal grieving process, there’s an entirely unique set of challenges to overcome for these kids. For starters, most of these children didn’t even know their parents were battling an “invisible disease,” a term Lauren Schneider, a LCSW and the clinical director of child & adolescent programs at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, uses to describe depression to children whose parents died by suicide.

Invisible is the perfect word to describe the disease that leads to approximately 800,000 reported deaths per year worldwide because suicide victims can appear perfectly happy right up until moments before their death.

To illustrate this, Chester Bennington’s widow, Talinda Bennington, tweeted out a home video of her husband with the caption, This is what depression looked like to us just 36 hrs b4 his death …”

The video shows a silly, childlike Bennington sitting next to his son and absolutely reveling in a game that involves tasting disgusting jellybean flavors.

Since her husband’s death, Talinda has dedicated herself to raising awareness about the many problems surrounding mental illness in this country. She started the 320 Changes Direction campaign to change the culture about mental health and mental illness in America.

Extended family present a whole different set of issues. Often, they’ll lay the blame, either directly or indirectly, on the surviving spouse and eventually drift out of the lives of the victim’s children.

Before the children of suicide victims can even begin to heal, they need to understand (in an age-appropriate manner) the truth about their parent’s death so can comfortably talk about it, Schneider says.

If you want to see firsthand how difficult this can be for a child, watch the first two minutes of the “One Last Hug: Three Days at Grief Camp.” It’s an HBO documentary that follows a grief camp (Camp Erin) where professional grief counselors, trained volunteers and children come together over a weekend to talk about death.

The film opens with a montage of children describing what happened to their loved ones. The second child in the sequence, a grade school aged girl, addresses suicide. The minute she opens her mouth to speak, you can feel her pain and discomfort. “He killed himself with a plastic bag,” she says looking downward and away from the camera. After a pause and a sigh, she adds “by hanging it over it his head” before the camera cuts away.

The fact that she’s able to talk honestly about his death is a huge accomplishment in and of itself. When a parent dies by suicide, many children will make up a cause of death (“my dad died of a heart attack”) simply because they’re ashamed or afraid of what others will think, Schneider says.

The good news is the tide is turning, and more people are beginning to see suicide as the result of mental illness, a disease with casualties and grieving loved ones and all the other collateral damage that comes with potentially fatal conditions.

Still, Schneider says we have a long way to go.

Surviving family of suicide victims deserve the same kind of support as people who lose a loved one to breast cancer. With all the walks, the pink ribbons and the awareness initiatives we currently have, it’s hard to imagine a time when breast cancer victims and their surviving family members were met with anything but unwavering love, support and compassion.

But Schneider is quick to point out that there was once a stigma attached to breast cancer. People honestly believed women somehow brought the cancer upon themselves and desperately tried to conceal the disease for fear of being shunned by their communities.

As disturbing as that is, it’s also reassuring. It shows that one day, with the tireless efforts of people like Schneider and Bennington, the stigma associated with suicide will seem as absurd as the stigma once attached to breast cancer, where surviving families will have the unconditional love and support they deserve, and where people like Melio123 will be hopefully be forced to say, “You know what, I was wrong.”

 

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is help available.

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