Stigma of suicide hinders emotional recovery for survivors
September is suicide prevention awareness month. Wyoming consistently has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation, and the state is working hard to change that.
One of the reasons that suicide prevention efforts are so important is because of what suicide does to the family and friends of the victim. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports that the grief survivors go through can be much more acute than other types of grief.
WILLOW BELDEN: On December 10, 2010, it occurred to Dan Hedrick that he hadn’t heard from his brother in several weeks. That wasn’t altogether odd. His brother was a solitary person – mostly kept to himself. But for some reason, Hedrick found himself wondering if everything was OK.
DAN HEDRICK : The next day I was headed into town. My phone rang, and my mom said, “Can you come up to the house? Your brother shot himself.”
BELDEN: When Hedrick got to the house, the police were already there. There was no note, but the coroner said it looked like a suicide. Hedrick says he’s still trying to wrap his head around WHY his brother killed himself.
HEDRICK: He had had an injury on an accident with union pacific that really wasn’t covered, and was in a lot of pain. That’s the story we tell ourselves. As a survivor … you keep trying to grasp at straws to make sense of it.
BELDEN: Hedrick says not knowing why his brother killed himself has been one of the hardest things to deal with. After his brother’s death, he did his best to be strong – to help his mother and sister cope with the loss. But in the process, he bottled up his grief, until it eventually bubbled to the top.
HEDRICK: I got to the point that I was constantly annoyed with everything, without knowing why I was annoyed. Simple things would make me mad and cause me to react in ways that I normally wouldn’t react.
BELDEN: And little things would bring back the pain, like his brother’s new driver’s license arriving in the mail.
HEDRICK: Six weeks after he passed away, up pops a letter with, “Congratulations, you got your license,” and a picture of him just before he died. There’s always those little things that kind of trigger the pain coming out.
BELDEN: Anyone who’s had a loss goes through a cycle of grief. But UW Psychology Professor Carolyn Pepper says suicide survivors often have added emotional trauma.
CAROLYN PEPPER: They’re also probably experiencing feelings of rejection and abandonment, wondering, “Why did this person do this to me?” And that can go along with anger. They might have guilt, wondering if there’s something they should have done – if they should have seen this coming and done something differently.
BELDEN: And there’s often a sense of isolation, because friends don’t necessarily know how to respond.
PEPPER: So even their friends sometimes pull away because they don’t quite know what to say, or how to be of help.
BELDEN: Pepper says survivors often feel a sense of shame, and so they avoid talking about what happened.
PEPPER: It’s a hard thing to say that, “My brother killed himself.”
TERRESA HUMPHRIES-WADSWORTH: You know the thing we struggle with, with suicide, is that there’s stigma around suicide.
BELDEN: Terresa Humphries-Wadsworth is the state suicide prevention coordinator. She says people often assume that someone who commits suicide has some sort of character flaw. And she says that keeps survivors – and their friends – from talking about it openly.
And Pepper says that makes it harder to get through the grief – harder to heal.
PEPPER: That could lead into things like depression, alcohol and drug abuse problems if they’re trying to use substances to use substances to numb the pain, and even in some cases, suicide themselves.
BELDEN: But Humphries-Wadsworth is optimistic that things will change.
HUMPHRIES-WADSWORTH: You know it hasn’t been that many years ago that we couldn’t say the word “cancer” – that was a word we whispered behind our hand when someone died. And now people talk about it openly. And I know that at some point that’s where we’re going to be with suicide deaths.
BELDEN: Humphries-Wadsworth says what’s needed is a major public education campaign. She says people need to understand that suicide victims are not flawed human beings; they just can’t see any other way to get past the problems in their lives.
HUMPHRIES-WADSWORTH: Once we understand that, it takes away that judgment that goes along with stigma.
BELDEN: And she says when that happens, survivors may start to talk more openly about what’s happened … and get the support they need to recover from the loss. She says the state is already working to educate people about the warning signs for suicide, and teach them how to help if someone is considering ending their life. And she hopes to expand those efforts in the future. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.