Shaw: Stigma surrounding self-injury, suicidal tendencies must be eradicated

The stigma of selfishness and attention-seeking surrounding mental illness, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies is ridiculous and harmful to a person’s mental health.

Nichole Shaw, Opinion Columnist

Society has come a long way with mental-health awareness and suicide prevention. However, there is still a great deal of detrimental stigma that surrounds individuals who harm themselves or have suicidal thoughts.

For example, the argument that people who harm themselves are doing it for attention is ridiculous, and the notion that those who have suicidal thoughts are selfish is toxic.

We must start having conversations about how to respond to the discovery of someone you know or love who harms herself or himself or has suicidal tendencies — what is appropriate and what isn’t. The perspective that people who harm themselves are doing it for attention is incredibly judgmental, and the impression that the people who struggle with these tendencies or thoughts are selfish is just wrong.

“For those folks who respond that way, it’s based on ignorance about the level of distress a person is in,” JED Foundation Chief Clinical Officer Nance Roy said. “It usually comes from a lack of awareness that the person going through this is going through a lot of emotional pain and emotion.”

Suicidal individuals are going through intense, unrelenting emotional pain. It’s why they’ve chosen to injure themselves as a coping mechanism or why they might be having suicidal thoughts. If people they know and trust throw judgmental words in their face, it will make them feel even more isolated because they are misunderstood. This is unacceptable. Rather than belittle their experiences, try to understand them.

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“The best way to bust through stigma is just to ask openly and honestly but with empathy and genuineness,” Crisis Center Director Beau Pinkham said. “Don’t ask questions in a way that would force a person to be dishonest. Ask honestly. Use that lethal language if you think it’s suicide — talking about the method they use is OK. That’s the coping strategy that they’ve clung on to, and they want to hear that reflected. If they don’t feel that you can talk about it in a good way, they’re not going to talk about it in a good way.”

Better coping mechanisms and hope for the future can appear for suicidal or self-harming individuals when the people who surround them make a direct effort to be open and understanding with them. Mental illness, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts are all things that can be managed if they are approached in the right way and people have appropriate conversations about them.

People going through a difficult period and struggling with immense pain are alienated when people surrounding them adopt judgmental attitudes regarding mental health. Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Boston has reported that more than 20 percent of students experienced crippling stress that was associated with mental-health diagnoses, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies.

To help individuals manage their emotional pain, Pinkham said, “Make yourself available. Make the concerted effort to reach out to that person … Don’t diminish anyone’s feelings, especially someone who’s feeling isolated and just went through this big transition, like college students.”

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That is crucial to the stability of people and their mental and physical health. Surround them with support and show them no one is giving up on them. Research their tendencies, talk to them about it, empathize with them, make a connection — anything to better understand what they’re going through.

“Simply listening is one of the best ways to show your support,” National Alliance on Mental Illness says. “Try to recognize and acknowledge the pain, anxiety, or confusion rather than getting into unnecessary arguments … use statements that give your perspective rather than imposing perceived behavior.”

Stop dismissing people for their struggles and start helping them get the resources they need to get better. See the person, not the illness or injury.