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.
Overall, the most common stigmatizing responses were “punishing others,” “selfish,” “hurtful,” “reckless,” and “weak”; at least 25% of participants endorsed each of these. 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.
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.
- Batterham, P.J., Calear, A.L., & Christensen, H. (2013). The Stigma of Suicide Scale: Psychometric properties and correlates of the stigma of suicide. Crisis, 34(1), 13-21.
- Stigma of Suicide Scale: available in both long form and short form on the Australian National University website.
The straight talk on suicide page has info on topics related to suicide, including getting help and safety planning, from someone who’s been there.
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.