How suicide stigma harms friends and family
Researcher with the Into The Light Indonesia
Indonesians have seen a rising number of suicide incidents that were widely spread through social media and messaging applications. We may still recall the two sisters who leapt from their apartment in Bandung in July, for instance.
Although the incidents were deeply tragic, at least they opened up public discussion about mental health and suicide issues in Indonesia, issues which have been largely stifled for years in our society.
Despite the progress, the center of conversation about suicide issues still mostly center on the victims. Too little is discussed about the suicide incidents’ hidden victims – the family members and friends.
Researchers have successfully shown there is an elevated risk of suicide among the suicide loss survivors -- the significant others of the person who died of suicide. Thomas Inself, the former director of the United States’ National Institute of Mental Health, argued that there are 11 victims in a suicide incident at the same time -- the person who died and ten people around them.
The nature of the grieving process that the suicide loss survivors have to go through that tends to be very complicated might be the root of the problem. Various negative emotions often haunt the people around the person who died by suicide. The “deliberate” nature of suicide death leads friends and family to think that they should be able to prevent the death of their loved ones, which causes guilty feelings and a sense of failure.
It is also quite common for the suicide loss survivors to feel angry towards their loved ones because they felt “abandoned” by them. The public often demonizes the person who died by suicide with the “they are going to hell” narrative. This causes further anxiety about the fate of their loved ones in the afterlife among the suicide loss survivors.
These problems could lead towards worsening mental health and future suicide behavior, especially among suicide loss survivors with a history of mental health problems.
In 1968, Edwin Shneidman, a professor of clinical psychology, coined the term “postvention” at a conference of the American Association of Suicidology. Postvention was introduced as a specific intervention to help the mourning process of the people around the person who died by suicide – including the complicated grieving and traumatic nature of death, and the stigma faced by the surviving “victims”.
Several experts in suicide issues have described postvention as a dual process. The intervention alleviates distress among suicide loss survivors. Also critically, postvention would prevent the widespread contagion of suicide, given the higher suicide risks of the loss survivors compared to the normal population. Providing the survivors with postvention would certainly avoid the chain reaction that might occur after a suicide incident.
However, a main roadblock in providing postvention towards the suicide loss survivors in Indonesia is the denial of mourning as often seen among the family members of the person who died by suicide.
The stigmatizing nature of the suicide death might also obstruct open discussions about the grieving the family members face, who might see it as something embarrassing. The stigma related to mental healthcare providers also makes suicide loss survivors feel reluctant to visit them. Therefore without addressing the stigma surrounding suicide mental health providers who provide postvention might be useless for suicide loss survivors in Indonesia.
A government public campaign to reduce the stigma of suicide is therefore urgent. The government‘s willingness to hold open talks about suicide would allow more people to be more open about suicide-related issues. Cooperation with clergies from various religions is critical to fight the stigma. Providing a much more helpful interpretation of religious teachings rather than “going to hell” might provide the suicide loss survivors a sense of relief about the fate of their loved ones.
Lastly, the mass media has an important role to de-stigmatize the suicide-related stigma in Indonesia. A much more positive framing when informing the public about suicide incidents could be achieved through careful use of language and avoiding speculation about the reason for the suicide in reports.
Using bombastic language might reinforce the stigma surrounding suicide, which is not helpful in encouraging the suicide loss survivors to seek help. Maintaining anonymity in reports would help survivors to avoid unwanted and certainly unnecessary spotlight. Being known as a suicide loss survivor is a very embarrassing experience for a person. This could lead towards them to constantly avoid people who are willing to help them.
Postvention can work well in Indonesia, but only if we thoroughly address and combat this suicide-related stigma.
The writer is a researcher with the Into The Light Indonesia group focusing on suicide prevention.
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