Commentary: Don’t let silence and stigma win the day

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Suicide prevention groups provide information for theatergoers during a dress rehearsal for Utah Opera's production of "Romeo and Juliet" on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.

Suicide. There, I said it.

I’ll even say it in context. I am a suicide attempt survivor.

Now the cat is out of the bag.

Now, because of stigma, you will never see me the same way again.

The sister epidemics of mental illness and suicide remain heavily shrouded in an archaic veil of stigma and shame. This sinister shroud constrains empathy, suspends thought and paralyzes voices with terrifying effectiveness. It plays a malevolent antagonist in the saga of suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

For the stigmatized, it is a mark of disgrace and humiliation. For the stigmatizer, it is evidence of ignorance and a poor justification for biased and deleterious behavior. Mental health specialists and organizations have made significant efforts to erode stigma in recent years, but the progress is slow, and stigma continues to be the leading reason that individuals and families do not reach out for help — even in times of crisis.

Empathy and understanding are essential to effectively dismantle stigmatic or prejudicial beliefs and behaviors. Next to personal experience, the most effective method to build empathy and understanding is to tell and retell stories. But allowing others to share in our direct experiences by proxy poses significant risk.

Those of us confronting the challenges of mental illness and suicidality already have elevated levels of anxiety, depression, mania, paranoia, insomnia and other symptoms of our illness. Ending silence requires that we risk unpredictable aggravation and exponential increase of the very symptoms we must manage if we hope to survive.

Additionally, many of us are silent because we literally cannot speak up. I drove to my comfortable downtown office this morning and sat at a stoplight in my heated car sipping fresh coffee as I observed a man noticeably pacing, fidgeting and mumbling agitatedly to himself. He is me. I am him. For no logical reason, I have insurance and income to provide for therapy, treatment and medication. He appears to not even have a home. His medication likely consists of some desperately self-prescribed combination of alcohol and illegal drugs. His daily interactions are likely increasingly injurious rather than therapeutic. In his world, even if he had capacity, he has no space where he can tell his story and have it heard.

Finally, stigma itself creates a tangible fear that prevents patients, survivors and their families from sharing their direct experiences with these chronic and, too often, terminal illnesses. Stigma ensures that we are aware of serious risk when we “out” ourselves. It imposes knowledge that sharing the truth of our experience will cost us relationships with friends and family members; co-workers will never look at us the same; perhaps our very livelihood will be threatened.

Risk of exacerbating symptoms, lack of capacity and venue to share experience, and the sheer fear that oozes from deep-seated stigma are serious obstacles that have systematically silenced our voices. But silence will never build empathy or increase understanding. Rather, it marginalizes, discredits and shames those struggling. Silence only buoys up all the taboos that envelop mental health and suicidality.

It is not easy, but those of us who can must look for and take advantage of opportunities to share our experiences. Otherwise, stigma will win the day, those suffering won’t reach out for help, mental health research and care will remain underfunded and rates of self-medication (substance abuse) and suicide will continue to increase. Meaningful progress in suicide prevention and mental health awareness starts with eviscerating stigma. It starts with naming names. It starts with sharing stories.

I’ll tell mine. If you can, join me and tell yours.

Allison Phillips Belnap

Allison Phillips Belnap works as an attorney on the Wasatch Front and lives in the Wasatch Back. She has been diagnosed with and is in treatment for borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, persistent depressive disorder, chronic anxiety, suicidality and multiple suicide attempts.