It’s a fairly standard obituary, published in the newsletter of a respected association of mental health professionals. An accomplished clinician-researcher, widely known for his brilliant theoretical insights and research, together with a heart of kindness and compassion, struck down before his time. The accolades flow, as the writer sings praises of this individual as a person and professional.
Watch out for the elephant
Upon finishing the piece, the reader realizes that there is an elephant in the room: It is widely known that this fine person died by his own hand, yet through several paragraphs of eloquent prose, no mention of the manner of death is found.
How is it that, in these supposedly enlightened times, with TV ads promoting the use of condoms and medications for erectile dysfunction, even a leading association of mental health professionals cannot utter the forbidden word suicide? When I contacted the editor about this situation, I received a sympathetic reply to the effect that “We’re just trying to protect the family’s feelings.” When I noted that this was an opportunity to reduce stigma about suicide by setting an example of openness (not to mention that the issue had not even been brought up with the family), I was told (and this was echoed higher up in the organization), “No – it’s not in the best interest of the organization.”
What does it say when, by deed if not word, we find it unacceptable to say that a friend, colleague, or family member was cut down in the prime of life by a killer that takes three lives per hour in the U.S. and nearly a million lives per year worldwide? And what opportunities are missed to provide passion and energy to the effort to prevent suicide, to honor the deceased with redoubled efforts to prevent further unnecessary and tragic losses?
As Dr. Oldham noted in his earlier column, recent years have seen significant advancement in treatments, biological and psychological, for many emotional and behavioral disorders. Yet suicide rates in the U.S. have declined only slightly in recent decades. Can we expect major progress on this front when stigma prevents mention of the word in polite company?
It would be naïve to suggest that there are simple answers to this sensitive issue; it is a thorny problem but one that must be addressed directly. How many lives were unnecessarily lost before breast cancer could be discussed in polite circles? Ditto for AIDS, alcoholism, and depression? Should suicide remain in a category by itself, so feared and dreaded that we cannot mention it in the same breath with the praise and love we feel for the person who died because of it? Can a dialog begin?