Mental health, Suicide

Stigma and How the Public Views Suicide

Stigma and public views on suicide: based on the Stigma of Suicide Scale

This post about public views open suicide was inspired by a conversation I’ve been having with Dear Walden about suicide. It’s also a follow-up to my recent post about suicide not being selfish.

In 2013, a group of Australian researchers developed and validated a scale to evaluate public views on suicide, which they named the Stigma of Suicide Scale.  For each item on the scale, participants would indicate whether they agreed or disagreed that the descriptor would apply to someone who died by suicide.

Key factors in public views on suicide

When the scale was with research participants (676 of them), the investigators found three key factors accounted for much of the expressed attitudes toward suicide: stigma, belief that isolation/depression caused the suicide, and normalization/glorification of suicide.

Differences among participant groups

Female participants were less stigmatized in their attitudes toward completed suicide, and more likely to attribute the suicide to isolation/depression.  This doesn’t particularly surprise me’ it seems consistent with societal gender role divisions, and the pervasiveness of such attitudes as “man up”.

Participants who had psychology degrees scored lower for stigma and higher for isolation/depression and normalization/glorification than those without.  Presumably this came as a result of having greater knowledge, although perhaps people who choose that field of study are more likely to have these attitudes already.

Participants who did not speak English at home had higher levels of stigma.  In this population, 42% believed that those who die by suicide are “weak”, compared to 22% of participants who spoke only English at home.

Stigmatized responses

Overall, the most common stigmatized responses were “punishing others,” “selfish,” “hurtful,” “reckless,” and “weak”; all of these were endorsed by at least 25% of participants.  38.3% of participants agreed that suicide is selfish.  Some of the descriptors endorsed less commonly were shameful (8.6%), pathetic (8.1%), an embarrassment (6.1%), arrogant (4.7%), immoral (4.6%), and lazy (3.3%).

This study used a sample of students and staff at the Australian university where the researchers were on faculty. My guess is that these stigmatized ideas would be even more common in the general population.  The sample was selected out of convenience rather than an attempt to gather a representative cross-section of the population.

Glorification/normalization

There are some interesting responses within the glorification/normalization factor: brave (14.3%), strong (6.2%), powerful (4.0%), fearless (3.1%), and noble (1.9%).  That means 13 people agreed that suicide was noble.  Huh.  That may not be many people, but it’s also not negligible. 

Age didn’t affect levels of stigma, but older people were more likely to normalize suicide, e.g. considering it to be rational.

Lots of room for improvement

These results aren’t surprising, but they’re still disappointing.  Looking at stigma, the “hurtful” and “reckless” responses don’t particularly concern me.  “Punishing others,” “selfish,” and “weak” seem far more problematic.  I also find it interesting that the belief that suicide is done to punish others is in itself a rather selfish way of looking at the issue.

While the responses glorifying suicide were far fewer, they’re concerning.  While stigma encourages silence, glorification encourages dying.  Not good.

So, still lots of work to do.

References

Suicide and Mental Illness – who to reach out to

The suicide & mental illness resource page has info on suicidal thinking, crisis lines and safety planning, along with straight talk on suicide.

You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.

9 thoughts on “Stigma and How the Public Views Suicide”

      1. I think suicide can be noble (think of monks committing suicide to protest social ills or injustice, etc.) or someone practically committing suicide to save someone else (like their child or loved one), but suicide to hurt others should never be applauded. It bothers me that it is.

        1. The danger however with thinking that suicide is noble, especially in a very politically volatile situation like it’s happening in Hong Kong now, is that it may encourage some people to attempt suicide in the name of saving the nation.

          1. Yeah, that can happen. I often say that in my opinion there isn’t a whole lot worth actually dying for, so people should really think through their options. However, in the end, it is a personal choice what we risk for what we believe in.

  1. Huh. One thing that makes me sad is that a lot of teens (I think) attempt suicide to send their parents the message that they (the parents) need to take their problems seriously enough. Like, the parents are being abusive or negligent or they just don’t care, and their teen is suffering with no way to be heard. And then the teen gets some help in the hospital, and the adults treating the teen mutter stuff like, “He just wanted some attention,” and I’m like, “THEN FREAKIN’ GIVE HIM SOME!” I definitely grew up in the culture of desperate overdoses that were made to escape the… hmm, what’s the word… the repression of emotions I felt in my toxic family. Of course, teens shouldn’t be applauded for taking too many pills, but the attitude of derision over it disgusts me. So many households are more toxic than they readily appear at first glance. So it’s upsetting that the people in this study were accusing suicidal people of punishing others, when at the heart of the matter, I think it’s not exactly that way. Sort of like in my book Unraveled.

    Great blog post! So much to think about here!

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