The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 3 of 3

I did not attempt suicide because I was depressed. I tried to end my life because of unbearable shame.

To paraphrase Thomas Joiner, a person’s risk of suicide increases with a corresponding increase in the belief that they are a burden to others and a decrease in perceived belongingness. If a person gains confidence in their ability to self-harm, then the risk of suicide becomes even greater.

You’ll notice that “being sad” is not a variable in his equation for suicide risk. That is because it IS NOT about being sad. We all get sad. We get the blues. We feel down.

Then our friends take us out, or our mother calls and we feel a little better.

Imagine how awful you would feel if you were grieving the loss of someone close to you, and you had no one to talk with. Even worse, you feel compelled to keep your feelings a secret because you do not want to burden other people with your problems.

When someone dies, every culture on Earth has their own process for grieving as an individual and as a community.

When someone gets physically sick, they are cared for by friends, family, and professionals if needed.

When someone is mentally ill, they are ostracized. They are whispered about. They are taken out of public view.

We are social creatures. Our roots are our family, our friends, branches, and our work and interests are the leaves.

Imagine, feeling no pleasure in your work or your favorite hobby… the leaves wither and fall.

Imagine, being compelled by distorted thinking that you cannot tell your friends… the branches become brittle.

Imagine, lying to your closest family members because you cannot bear causing them pain… the roots shrivel.


Eventually, you become a shell of your former self. Standing tall for the world to see, but your supporting structures are gone, and one more storm might take you down for good.


We see this most harshly in our primate relatives because of psychologist Harry Harlow. His experiments are explored in-depth in the book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. His most famous experiment was with infant rhesus monkeys confined to a cage with two fake mothers. One mother was made of wire mesh and had a bottle of milk. The other mother had no milk, but was covered in soft fur.

The prevailing idea of the time was that children only needed physical sustenance from their parents to develop into healthy adults. Harlow’s experiments destroyed that idea because the young monkeys spent nearly all their time cuddling the soft mother with no milk, and briefly leaving the comforting mommy to climb on the wire mother to drink.

The visual equivalent of the effect of mental illness stigma.

The visual equivalent of the effect of mental illness stigma.

A lesser known experiment by Harlow was known, by him, as The Pit of Despair. This is a truly horrific experiment.

He would take an infant from its mother at birth, and put it in an inverted triangular enclosure. The walls were sloped at an extreme angle so the monkey could never climb out. It grew up in an environment with no parenting or socialization; only food and the slow, cold realization that it could never change it’s circumstances.

This is a striking example of how a primate with no one to talk to, and no way to talk, cowers away from everything.

This is a striking example of how a primate with no one to talk to, and no way to talk, cowers away from everything.

After a time, the monkey would be placed in an enclosure with many monkeys. They huddled in the corner, cried, and shook themselves.

Forced isolation created an animal that lived entirely in fear. Even worse, the socialized “normal” monkeys picked on the fearful monkey; increasing it’s terror and further decreasing any likelihood that it could ever socialize normally.

This is a compelling example of how badly social primates can be hurt by the inability to talk. I share these pictures because they are revolting. As the viewer, we feel such an outpouring of concern for such a sad and fearful creature.

We can feel this for a rhesus monkey in a cage, but not a human being in the cage of an ill mind. Stigma prevents us, and it prevents those suffering from seeking treatment. Lest they become a burden to those they care about.

So the young boy closes his closest door and loops a belt around his neck.

The father drives to a bridge and jumps.

The teenage girl draws a bath and slits her wrists.

All because they did not believe they could talk to anyone.