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Other Deaths vs. Suicide

When someone dies of heart disease or cancer, it’s not their fault…my loved one had a mental illness, so why is it their fault?

By Michelle Howard, D.Ed. Child. Psych., Educational and Child Psychologist, Ireland

This is a complex question as its answer must attempt to provide an interpretation of the human thought processes. Why does society blame a person who has died as a result of a mental illness but does not blame a person who has died as a result of a heart disease or cancer?

A person’s need to make sense of a loved one’s death is widely recognised in the relevant literature. This process has been referred to as ‘meaning making’. Meaning making refers not only to searching for an understanding of why the death occurred but also to considering the meaning of the death for them as the bereaved (Nadeau, 1998). Meaning making is common to all deaths but appears to be particularly relevant and indeed elusive to suicide. An extension of a family’s meaning making is society’s meaning making. Members of society strive to find reasons for deaths among its members. The meaning behind some deaths is more easily obtained than others. Cancer sufferers are likely to get medical attention and receive a diagnosis prior to death.

As mental illness has been historically stigmatised by society, people may be less likely to seek support for a mental illness than a physical illness. Therefore, it may be less likely to be diagnosed. In addition, the effects of cancer, for example, can be physically observed and identified through an autopsy. A mental illness cannot. It follows that the mental illness is more difficult to identify and hence more difficult for many to accept as a cause of a death. Therefore, society looks elsewhere for answers. The act of taking your own life may appear to many as being at odds with the human instinct to survive. As such, it had been viewed as a crime in many societies; hence linking it more closely to murder than to an illness. While suicide has been decriminalised in many societies, the term ‘commit’ has been slow to be removed from our society’s vocabulary. Criminal terminology suggests someone is to blame and unfortunately many people consider that the person who took their own life holds that responsibility.                     

In essence, searching for the cause of a death is not unique to suicide. However, unfortunately, a lack of awareness of the existence of mental illness, its symptoms and its impact on sufferers has resulted in society neglecting to consider suicide in the same way as they would a death due to another illness. An increased understanding of mental illness should enable society to engage in a more accurate process of meaning making, thus removing the connotation of blame. In addition to removing the stigma of suicide, this should empower society to identify and help members who are feeling suicidal and, hence, contribute to the prevention of suicide in future generations.

Nadeau, J. W. (1998). Families making sense of death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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