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.

Mental Health Memes


I love memes. They’re great fun, and a great delivery system for just about any kind of message. However, there is a darker side to memes that we need to respect, and that is their tendency to reduce complex ideas down to something pithy and memorable.

Leaving us with examples like this sage advice from the 16th President of the United States of America.

Good advice? Absolutely.

Correct attribution? Doubtful.

Memorable? Certainly.

Memes are the hieroglyphics of our age, and I hope someone prints them out and stuffs them in a time capsule because it will leave future archaeologists incredibly confused.


A friend shared this meme with me recently.

As memes go, it’s a pretty good one. Strong typeface font against a stark, black background, and memorable celebrity names.

It packs a punch full of pixels, but I do not agree with the creator’s point.

“So, let me say this really loud so the people in the back of the room can hear me… Sometimes you need to check on those who seem the strongest.”

The tone is remarkably condescending, and I do not care for it.

Even worse, there is no attribution for these quotes. That is one significant downside of memes, you can make anyone say anything and it looks like they said it.

I took the liberty of hunting down these quotes.

  • Robin William’s friends:

    • I cannot find quotes from his friends that match exactly what the meme states.

    • I did find this from Ben Stiller, which I felt was pretty close: “His kindness and generosity is what I think of. How kind he was to anyone who wanted to connect with him. And he could not help but be funny all the time.”

  • Kate Spade’s Father really said:

    • "The last I talked with her, the night before last, she was happy planning a trip to California to look at colleges. She doted on her daughter."

  • Anthony Bourdain’s best friend, Eric Ripert:

    • "He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many.”

Back to how the meme ends, I strongly disagree with the tone of the creator’s point, and I disagree with the proffered advice because it lacks specificity.

“You need to check on…” can mean anything; so it inevitably means nothing. To one person, it might mean text. To another, it might mean to sign commitment papers.

The meme is written to encourage people to reach out to those who may be suffering from mental illness and thinking about suicide. I applaud the objective, but I condemn the effort.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.” How most conversations will end.

“Do you have a plan to end your life?”


“I’m worried, are you thinking of ending your life by suicide?”


“Please, talk to me, I’m here, do you have any plans to hurt yourself?”

“…well, I wouldn’t say a plan, exactly. Well, maybe…” How a specific question can tease out plans.

It took my fictional person three tries to get an answer, and in reality it may take forty tries. But if you are concerned about a loved one’s safety, then it helps to get specific.

Now, I am not about to argue in the negative without providing an example of something better. Here is my take on an improved meme:

The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 2

What is it that makes us fearful of the unknown? The strange? The other?

It makes sense that most of us are frightened of large predators, poisonous animals, deep bodies of water, and exceptional heights. All of those things could cause us significant bodily harm, or even death.

But why be afraid of another human? We share 99.9% of our DNA with one another! The answer lies in our evolutionary past.

We are naturally fearful of what we cannot see. We descended from hunter-gatherers who assumed that every rustling sound in the bushes indicated the presence of a bigger, badder animal. We did not descend from those that thought, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Because those humans were eaten.

“Did anyone else hear that?”

“Did anyone else hear that?”

Today, most of humanity can reasonably assume that they are not at risk to being lunch for a saber-tooth tiger. The fear of the unseen did not go extinct; it developed into the fear of the unseen in others.

We humans are equally adept at crafting stories and placing blame. As a result we found differences and exploited them to feel safe:

“Dear me… that one thinks he’s Napoleon!”

“Dear me… that one thinks he’s Napoleon!”

There is a deep-seated, human reason for calling “other” people names. It allows us to immediately declare that WE are not THEM. As a result, we feel safe, superior, and entitled to take liberties.

When I go off the rails
I hurt my self not you
I curl up in my bed
A snail within the shell
When I am depressed
I don’t rise up off my sofa
Let alone become a danger
Manned with an axe
To chop up you
When my brain is racing
From one thing to the next
I haven’t the space or time
To bother anyone other
So relax
When I’m up
I am creative
Making, painting a must
I become one possessed
But not with you
Stigma wielding man
My juices too precious to waste
On hydrating your prejudice

I have an illness
It is not contagious
And not the all of me
So if you cannot accept
Or treat me with a little respect
Then at the very least
Zip your mouth
Don’t tell me what’s best
Or simply to pull my self together
I am not curtains
And I do not care to be patronised
By your ignorance
Yes I’m talking to you
The uninformed jury
Assuming fear as fact
Remember one day it may
Be your reality too.
- Rachel Blake

Germans became “Krauts”, Japanese became “Japs”, Russians became “Reds”.

Mentally ill becomes “crazy”.

Schizophrenic becomes “dangerous”.

Depression becomes “lazy”.

Anxiety becomes “weak”.

We are wired to be afraid of that which we believe is different. Stigmatizing something or someone is a natural, human activity.

That said, we should feel comfortable relegating that urge to the dust bin of history. We are growing out of our childish understanding of the world. If a child in middle school can comprehend the basics of atomic structure; surely that child can also be taught that .1% is insignificant when compared to 99.9%.

The real question is, will we grow out of the childhood of our species or will we follow our baser instincts?

What is Project Semicolon?

I could explain the misunderstood nature of the semicolon, but The Oatmeal does it so much better.

Project Semicolon is an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide. Our work is based on the foundation and belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide. Through raising public awareness, educating communities, and equipping every person with the right tools, we know we can save lives.”

Why use a semicolon as a logo for suicide prevention? Because a semicolon is where an author could have ended a sentence; instead choosing to continue the story.

The idea is that we are all authors of our lives; those that attempt suicide metaphorically attempt to put a period at the end of theirs.

I tried to put a period on my life a couple times; I did not succeed.

A few years ago, I saw someone with a tattoo of a semicolon on their wrist. I was unsure of what it symbolized, other than an affinity for generally-misunderstood punctuation. So I went up to this person and asked… I’m kidding, I Googled it.

That search led me to Project Semicolon and to a wealth of stories that mirrored mine. As a fan of tattoos, it was not long before I walked into Read Street Tattoo and asked for one on my wrist.

Yes, that is a Llama in tree pose. My sister painted it, and it’s the best Llama painting in the world.

Yes, that is a Llama in tree pose. My sister painted it, and it’s the best Llama painting in the world.

You may notice that my semicolon is not oriented correctly (this makes it an Arabic semicolon). That is mainly so the sweeping tail of the punctuation covers a scar on my wrist. I earned that scar due to stupidity; putting my hand through a window in anger.

What I have come to deeply appreciate about my tattoo is that some people will ask me about it, but others will see it and say, “me too,” or “my wife.”

Or I’ll trade a subtle head nod with someone waiting in line at the grocery store.

Despite the use of a semicolon as a moderate pause in speaking; it has generated a great deal of memorable conversations.

So now you know what a semicolon tattoo means. Someone may have made an attempt. Someone may know a friend or family member who tried to die by suicide. It means the story isn’t over.

Gordon tried to die by suicide; he survives.  - beautiful in style and placement. - beautiful in style and placement.

How Someone Chooses a Location for Suicide

I write this in an abundance of caution.

Before I go further, if you are planning suicide, I highly encourage you to call the

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

“He feels pessimistic about any future. Some time ago, early in his life, he formed a fixed idea, a flawed concept of what tolerable happiness might be, but his great tragedy was that he defined it in such a way that he could never attain it. It is present from the very beginning, in the very first few sentences. It is the pain, the enduring psychological pain that darkens his life. It is a pain that, in his psyche, is unbearable, intolerable, unendurable, and unacceptable. In his terms, it is better to stop the cacophony in his mind that to endure the unbearable noise.” - Edwin Shneidman, Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind

Dr. Shneidman, the father of modern-day suicidology, researched why people killed themselves in an attempt to find reliable indicators that medical professionals could use to recognize when someone may be at risk for suicide.

A friend asked me why someone might choose to end their life by suicide in a particular place. I can speak from personal experience, as well as from what the historical research into suicide can elucidate.

2,000 deaths since 1968, with 100-200 saved from jumping every year.

2,000 deaths since 1968, with 100-200 saved from jumping every year.

In the United States, we are familiar with the high rate of suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge, but you may be unfamiliar with the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in China.

The beauty of an expanse of water is a romantic human notion. We are drawn to the possibility of something beyond, and it requires very little imagination to see that dying by jumping off a bridge can, “merge the needs for nurturance and death that occurs in the suicidal mind” (Joiner).

If you believe someone snaps, and jumps off a bridge or slits their wrists in a bathtub; let me disabuse you of that idea.

The act itself may be impulsive, but everything that led up to the attempt was planned. I planned to kill myself by hanging in my basement apartment of my parents house. 

Why? Did I not care that my family would be the first to find me? Of course I cared, but my thinking was so distorted that those thoughts barely registered in my mind.

I planned to die in my home for two simple reasons. One, I was comfortable there. Two, I knew the rhythms. I knew when everyone was asleep, or when the house was deserted. I could plan, intimately, the details of exactly where I wanted to end my life.

Joiner again says it best,

“Planfulness regarding episodes of self-harm represented a significant risk factor for later completed suicide. Planfulness requires competence, which in my model is a key aspect of the acquired capability for lethal self-injury.”

Someone may choose to jump off a memorable bridge or building for a degree of flair, but also because they have read about people dying, and succeeding, at these locations. Whereas another person might choose to end their life in their home or their office, because that is where they are most comfortable.

Still others, myself include, might get a hotel room. Where there is a semblance of home, combined with the knowledge that no one will disturb you if you put that little sign on your door.

Reasons for choosing a location are as varied as our preferences for why we choose to move, or the work on which we embark. It may be due to convenience, to allure, comfort, control, accessibility; the list is truly endless.

These are all answers that we can consider if we are faced with the terrible question, why? Why did my friend, spouse, child, coworker kill themselves? Why there?

I will tackle these questions and more as I explore my own experiences, in the hopes that my search for better answers will help others.