In England, one person dies from suicide every two hours. In the US, on average, there are 117 suicides every day. That means there are more than 42,000 deaths by suicide each year in the States, making it the 10th most common cause of death. Yet despite these grim statistics, we continue to shun those who talk about mental illness and suicide as attention-seeking. And by doing so, we effectively ask those reaching out for support to keep quiet and suffer in silence.
Singer Chris Brown has come under fire for accusing fellow entertainer Kehlani Parrish of seeking attention after she posted a photo of herself on an IV drip, stating she had been hospitalised after an attempted suicide. "There is no attempting suicide. Stop flexing for the gram. Doing sh*t for sympathy so them comments under your pics don't look so bad," Brown commented, sparking criticism on social media. But while his comments can no doubt be brushed aside as ignorance – they are part of a bigger problem. We still don't talk about mental illness the way we should.
It is far too common for those who reach out for support for mental illness to be branded attention-seeking – a harmful by-product of the stigma surrounding mental health. According to a survey carried out by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness for the Time to Change project, nine out of 10 people with mental illness reported the negative impact of stigma and discrimination on their lives. What's more, 58% say the stigma and discrimination is as bad as – or worse – than the illness itself.
Stigma means society has traditionally viewed suicide and subsequent attempts in a myopic fashion. Rather than an attention-seeking stunt, or a one-off exploitation of sympathy, a suicide attempt is a cry for help that should never be ignored – in part, because it is a warning that something is terribly wrong. A suicide attempt should never be dismissed because an individual who attempts suicide is at greater risk of another attempt and even worse: succeeding.
It is a common myth that people who do talk about suicide aren't serious and won't go through with it. But according to the Samaritans, people who kill themselves have often told someone they don't feel life is worth living, or they have no future. Some have outright said they wanted to die. And while it is possible that someone might talk about suicide as a way of getting the attention they need, it is fundamentally important to take anyone who talks about feeling suicidal seriously.
Despite high rates of suicide around the world – 800,000 people die every year – it is still a taboo topic. Women who do speak up or confide in others about their feelings are commonly targeted with accusations of attention-seeking, despite women being more likely than men to have a common mental health problem. Gendered stereotypes regarding proneness to emotional problems in women reinforce social stigma, which act as a barrier to support and treatment. For men, a reluctance to talk about problems because of the constraints of masculinity is equally as deadly.
To our detriment, society's long-standing refusal to accept mental illness as a legitimate health problem means those who need help often go without. Had Kehlani been going through treatment for cancer and shared a picture online, it is unlikely she would have been accused of emotional manipulation to garner sympathy. But because she dared to speak about depression and suicide, she was essentially branded a liar.
So often, those in desperate need of support find it difficult to tell others about a mental health problem because they fear a negative reaction. And when they do speak up, the overwhelming majority, according to Time to Change, say they are misunderstood by those closest to them – including family, friends and neighbours. For all its flaws, social media can provide an impersonal platform to reach out for help and seek the support they need. It can help break the cycle of stigma and isolation, whether it seems attention-seeking or not.
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