Suicide has held different meanings to different cultures, at different times in history. Suicide has been viewed both as an altruistic act, and as a mortal sin. It can be seen as a reflection of religious faith and a rational act – as the right of no one, and the right of everyone.

Historical Views on Suicide

Thomas AquinasThe philosopher, Aristotle, proclaimed that suicide was harmful to the community and should thus be unlawful. Seven centuries later, St. Augustine proclaimed suicide a sin and the Catholic Church attached consequences to suicide attempts and deaths. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, used the teachings of Aristotle to support the churches view of suicide as a mortal sin. By the 17th century the term “suicide” was widespread and was treated as a triple crime of murder, treason against the state, and heresy against the church. Punishment for suicide was common. It was not until the 19th century philosophers and sociologists began to consider suicide as a multidimensional issue.

During 19th and 20th centuries a greater understanding of suicide emerged from the work of Freud, Piaget, Durkheim, Erikson, Pavlov, Maslow, Seligman, Rogers encompassing various perspectives which highlight suicide as a multifaceted problem.

Modern Views on Suicide

shneidmanIn 1958 Edwin Schneidman founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Centre. The work of Schneidman and his colleagues caused a major shift in our understanding of suicide as an act of an insane or sinful person to an act of someone who is likely experiencing an intolerable pain, an overwhelming ambivalence toward life — someone who needs and wants help.

Today, many still hold negative beliefs based in part on misinformation. These myths and negative messages about suicide continue to support the stigma present today.

The word stigma derives from Ancient Greek, and originally referred to a tattoo or brand used to punish individuals by visibly identifying them. Social stigmas can be described as labels that subject individuals to loss of status or discrimination. The perception of social stigma can be isolating to persons with thoughts of suicide.

Talking Change: Contemporary Views and Stigma

Research has shown that risk of suicide death is highest in regions where stigma is most prevalent. The stigma and taboo surrounding suicide not only prevent help-seeking behaviours, but also precipitate suicide deaths.

If we avoid the topic of suicide we contribute to a perception of stigma. Our words, actions and behaviours — including silence — sends a message to others. Simply by talking openly and honestly about this important issue, we can all make a difference by helping to overturn social and cultural stigma associated with suicide.

Suicide itself does not discriminate, it is universal: It can be present in anyone, anywhere, at any time. Suicide occurs among every age group (from children to the oldest members of society), in every culture, religion, ethnicity, country, and among the wealthiest and poorest members of society.

Despite the non-discriminatory nature of suicide there are some people who believe that talking openly about suicide, and undermining stigma, could be mistaken as cultural insensitivity.
We must draw a distinction between cultural sensitivity (or political correctness) and social stigma.

Creating Suicide Safer Communities

If we do not label stigma correctly we allow it to continue to further marginalize and isolate individuals at risk of suicide death.

Learn how you can help to reduce the stigma of suicide and create a suicide safer community by clicking here. (link to suicide safer community page)

Creating Suicide Safer Communities