Campaigning for change is a tricky business. I say that because most regular campaigns have a neat timeline with a distinct end point and tangible goals. Achieving a cultural shift on the other hand takes time. It requires passion, persistence, and patience (alliteration not intended). The wins are often tiny steps towards a bigger end goal.
Mental health is a prime example. We’ve come a long way in challenging negative and damaging attitudes around mental ill health and suicide, but recent events have handed us a sharp reminder that the anti-stigma movement is still very much needed.
While it’s great we have celebrities talking about mental health, we’ve also seen a growing number of celebrities and controversial figures doubting and denying peoples’ experiences, calling them weak and attention seeking. This perpetuates the stigma that people are just talking about suicide to get attention. We’ve seen so many people, both everyday and celebrity, be called liars and weak for bravely speaking about their suicidal thoughts and attempts. Stigma is very much still around – Adrienne.
Talking openly and sensitively about suicide isn’t triggering or harmful. Having to cope with negative attitudes is. So it’s been deeply painful watching the response to Meghan Markle talking about her own experiences of having suicidal thoughts. As Adrienne continues, “when someone opens up about their suicidal thoughts and they encounter a heavily stigmatised and negative response, then the person may not want to open up again. More often than not, suicidal thoughts can remain even if the person is no longer actively considering suicide or attempting it.
By disbelieving and insulting the efforts of someone opening up, the person may allow the thoughts to build up and up and up so leading to circular thoughts, and rumination. They may feel as if they have no one to turn to. They may have received confirmation of their negative self-talk and thoughts, justifying their suicidal thoughts, and this may lead to an increase in the likelihood of suicide attempts
“I know, from my own personal experiences, that by feeling supported and having the space to talk, has kept my suicidal thoughts, anxieties, and traumas at bay, but when I was within environments where I was doubted, called a liar, and an attention seeker, I felt hopeless and like life wasn’t worth living because no one cared. I’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship and been doubted and called a liar and attention seeker and nuisance for having poor mental health including suicidal thoughts, and an attempt. So, I know the people involved in that environment still hold that negative, disbelieving attitude towards me, and I know I can’t be within that environment again otherwise I would be ignored and have my suicidal and negative self-talk confirmed and justified”.
Some of what Adrienne describes is reflected in the experiences of our colleague, Dave.
There was a time when I had people in my life who didn’t believe my anxiety was real, so I stopped talking about it, which made the problem worse – Dave.
Stigmatising mental ill health and suicide is real and harmful. It shames people into staying quiet. It disempowers friends and loved ones from being able to strike up important, potentially life-saving, conversations. I’m not saying a conversation with a friend should replace professional support – of course not – but there are things we can all do to start an important conversation. Crucially though, having the confidence and feeling empowered to do this is often what holds us back.
In addition to engaging with a variety of mental health services, friendships have also played a key role. Having trustworthy friends who listen without judgement can be a great help – Dave
You don’t need to be a professional to be understanding. You don’t need to be a professional to listen. Listening is usually what we need. We’re so often trapped with our thoughts, and so often turned away, that we end up with a mountain of bottled up thoughts and feelings. So, when we are allowed to talk, without a great deal of interruption, then it can lift a weight off our shoulders. It’s natural to want to solve all our problems, and make the problem go away, but you don’t need to do that. That’s why the professionals are there, but it helps to be listened to and not feel doubted and rejected – Adrienne
There’s still much to do in challenging harmful attitudes and normalising the conversation around mental health (we all have it, right?). But the good news is the anti-stigma movement continues to grow in strength.
I take comfort from this immense people power. I also take comfort in knowing that we can all play our part in challenging damaging attitudes, whether that’s getting involved in campaigning or giving someone a safe space to talk openly. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but we will get there. One tiny step at a time.
This article was written by Fiona Milne, Communications Officer for Penumbra. With huge thanks to Recovery Worker Adrienne and Peer Recovery Practitioner Dave for their contributions, and for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me.
If you’re reading this and you don’t know how to start a conversation about suicide with a friend or loved one, download a copy of the Art of Conversation and other #UnitedToPreventSuicide resources.