The cultural taboos of suicide and mental illness | John Nieuwenburg | TEDxStanleyPark

The cultural taboos of suicide and mental illness | John Nieuwenburg | TEDxStanleyPark


Reviewer: Leonardo Silva On the morning of May 25, 2011, I attempted suicide by tying a rope into a hangman’s noose, putting it around my neck, and then jumping from a log much like the one you see in this photo. Obviously, something went wrong, and I survived. Later someone told me I was lucky, but that’s not what
I was feeling at the time. I wanted to end my life that day, and I was bitterly disappointed
to find myself alive. The scars you see here
are from the ropeburn I got when the hangman’s noose unraveled. As you can imagine, it hurt. What hurt even more is I didn’t have
the energy or capacity to try again. It’d taken more than four hours of hiking
through the park to find a suitable spot, and before that,
months and months of anguish. I was exhausted – mentally and physically. I had nothing left. I was done. Now that you know a little of my story, let’s step back and take a look
at suicide’s causes, consequences, and perhaps some of the answers. Currently, there are strong cultural
taboos in discussing suicide. Secondly, nearly everyone
who attempts or dies by suicide has a mental illness at the time, which for many is seen as character flaw. As long as mental illness
and suicide are stigmatized, they’ll remain a hidden,
but very real, public health threat and a source of terrible pain
for everyone who’s been affected. My hope is that change can occur where suicide and mental illness
are no longer stigmatized and the cost and impact
on families and society, diminished. A reframe is the ability to see
a set of facts in a entirely new way. Let me give you an example. In the 1984 presidential election,
Ronald Reagan’s age became a factor. At the time, he was 73 and Walter Mondale,
his opponent, was 56. In the first presidential debate,
Reagan didn’t do very well, and it was thought to be
because of his age. In the second debate, a journalist asked Reagan
whether or not he was fit to be president and whether or not his age
was going to be an impediment to his ability to do the job. Here’s how he responded. Ronald Regan: I will not make age
an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit,
for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. (Laughter in the video) (Applause in the video) As you can imagine, his age
was never again factor in the campaign. Can you see how
we skillfully reframed the facts so that we saw them
in an entirely different way? So now that we know about reframe, what are the facts about suicide? This pie chart shows us
the leading causes of death in the US for the most current year of 2013. And as you can see,
suicide is last on the list and the smallest wedge in our pie chart. So while suicide
is a leading cause of death, it doesn’t get much of our attention. After all, all of us have been affected
in some way by heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases, as well as all the attention these causes
get through fundraising and charities. So it’s no wonder
they stand out in our minds. There are about 40,000 suicides
per year on average in the US and about 16,000 homicides. Are you surprised? Are you surprised that there are
more suicides than murders? That in fact, there are 2.5 times
more suicides than homicides? Furthermore, it’s believed that,
for every suicide, there are 25 attempts, which is about a million
per year, in the US. So even though the number of suicides
is sterling enough, it’s miniscule, compared to the number of people,
like me, who’ve attempted suicide. Suicide has an enormous cost
to our society. The Center for Disease Control
estimates that, on average, a suicide costs about a million dollars, and that totals 34 billion dollars in medical costs
and lost work productivity. Most tragic of all: 6 to 32 surviving family members,
friends and colleagues, who will suffer and grieve their loss. So the next time you hear of a murder, let me ask you to take a moment
to consider that, in that same time, there have been 3 suicides
and 75 attempts. When someone commits the murder,
it makes the news. When someone dies by suicide – nothing. It’s silence. Yet, the facts are suicide
happens much more often and is much more likely to affect
our families and our society. How does someone get to a place where
suicide seems like the best option? In fact, the only option? Over 90% of people who attempt or die
by suicide have mental illness at the time and the most common
mental illness is depression. Depression makes suicide seem like
reasonable way to solve problems you face. In fact, studies have shown
that, in 100% of cases, suicide is seen as a solution
for emotional pain and hopelessness. Now, you may say
suicide is not a solution, but that’s what makes
depression so insidious. When you’re depressed,
suicide looks like it makes sense. You might be wondering,
“What does depression feel like?” Depression is not the same for everyone, but what everyone
with depression has in common – you don’t feel like yourself. Depression, the medical term,
could really use a different name. Today we use word “depressed” to mean
everything from feeling a bit miserable to having a clinical mental disorder which is a little like comparing
someone who’s had a paper-cut to someone who’s had their arm amputated. It’s not the same. For me, depression
didn’t feel like anything, or at least what does empty
and hopeless feel like? What it did feel like is a never-ending
and ever-smaller tunnel. What it did feel like is excruciating. After my attempt,
I received an unexpected gift: the unconditional love and support
of my partner Jennifer and two of my brothers, Roy… (Sigh) (Applause) (Cough) Roy – excuse me – Roy and Jim, with whom she shared my secret. It’s with their help that I survived. At the time, I didn’t think
their help was available. (Sigh) Audience member: [Unintelligible], John. (Cheers) (Applause) That was my partner, Jennifer. (Laughter) Clearly, I was wrong. It’s another example of how depression
corrodes your thinking. A dilemma is a situation
where you need to make a choice between two equally unattractive options. On 9/11, many people fell to their death
from the World Trade Center. Consider their dilemma. Death by fire or by jumping. They made the choice
that jumping was preferable to excruciating pain of the fire. On May 25, 2011, I made the choice that jumping
from a log with rope around my neck was preferable to the
excruciating pain of my depression. Now you may wonder, “Is the pain of the fire and the pain
of the depression the same? I don’t know. It’s hard to know for sure. What I do know for sure is
in the throes of our respective dilemmas, we made the same choice. Here’s the thing: I understand
the situation isn’t exactly the same, but let me ask you to imagine the horror
that people in the WTC must have faced. And if you can imagine that, then you can also imagine the feeling of being trapped
in an intolerable situation, and that’s what makes depression
sometimes make suicide possible. When thinking about suicide,
people often say one of three things. First, some people say
that suicide is an act of cowardice. Do you think the people
that jumped off the WTC took the coward’s way out that day? My guess is you don’t. No one atempts or dies by suicide
because they want to die. Suicide is not an act of cowardice. It’s a desperate act
to get a relief from the pain. Secondly, some people say
suicide is selfish. Are the people who get cancer
or heart disease selfish? Of course not. Getting a clinical mental disorder
affects your ability to think, your mood and your judgement. Suicide is not the problem. Rather, it’s the result
of the underlying illness. Rather than ask why the suicide, ask why the pain. And third, some people say
that suicide is a cry for help. One Harvard study of 286 people found
that 42% agree with the statement: “My suicide attempt was a cry for help,
I didn’t mean to die.” The majority, 58% agree
with the statement: “I made a serious attempt to kill myself. I’m lucky to be alive.” In my case, I made a serious attempt, and I am lucky to be alive. Do you know that, by the late 1980s, 30 of the 50 US states
had no laws against suicide? That by 1993, suicide was
largely decriminalized? At the time of my attempt, I had a vague notion
that suicide was criminal which is part of the reason
I didn’t seek or get medical attention. So how did I get the attention I needed? This is a CT scan, and just for reference the white spot you see inside
a red circle is my spine. And what you’re seeing is a cross-section
of my body at the level of my liver. The dark spot with the red indicator
is a leader of an infected fluid. As a result, my liver had expanded, compressing my lungs and stomach so much
I couldn’t breathe or eat. I’d lost 30 pounds in the six weeks
before this scan was taken. It was on my third attempt at emergency
that I finally got admitted to a hospital, and in doing a full medical intake, the facts of the suicide attempt
from three months earlier became known, and I was given psychiatric care. Isn’t it ironic I did not get treatment
for my mental health until I got admitted to a hospital
for my physical health? My liver condition gets attention
and my mental health condition doesn’t? Even me? Someone who attempted
suicide had a stigma? A stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular
circumstance, quality or person. And speaking of stigmas, is depression a mental illness
or a character flaw? And secondly, who do you think of when you think of people
with mental illness? Is this what you think of? People living on the margins of society? The only people with mental health issues
are people with issues? Or perhaps you think of a man
who was thought to have a mental illness who commited a mass shooting
at Sandy Hook Elementary, in Newtown, Connecticut. Or maybe your model of mental
illness is shaped by the movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” with that oppressive head nurse Ratched, and that the best way to treat
mental illness is with a lobotomy. If that’s what comes to mind for you,
perhaps it’ll surprise you that Jim Carrrey, who’s made
a career of making us laugh, has depression and
he’s battled it for decades. After returning from a Moon,
Buzz Aldrin coped with depression. After all, he’d been to the Moon and back. What was there to live for? Hey, do you know that song by Elton John,
called “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”? It’s about his suicide attempt in 1969. And that Billy Joel
has long coped with depression, and in 1970, he attempted suicide? And even tough-as-nails
football players like Brandon Marshall can have a mental illness. And with the shocking death
of Robin Williams, we learned that he’d coped with depression
and mental illness for decades. So the people with mental illness are not
just people in the margins of the society. People I’ve met with
mental illness are just like me, and some of you. That’s right, one in four people
has a mental health problem, and many more people
have a problem with that. Let me put it another way:
this room holds about 400 people, and that means about 100 of us
have had a mental illness in our lifetime. So what I’m going to ask you to do
is take a look to your left, look to your right, and as you look to your left and right,
try to identify who has a mental illness. (Laughter) If you can’t identify who it is, maybe it’s you. (Laughter) Now it’s time to get to facts
about mental illness and suicide, because as long as mental illness
and suicide are stigmatized, they’ll remain a hidden,
but very real, public health threat. The director-general of the
World Health Organization says that mental illness
is not a personal failure. If there’s a failure to be found, it’s in the way we’ve responded to people
with mental and brain disorders. Treatment is available, but nearly two-thirds of the people
with a known mental illness never seek help
from a health professional. Our society and culture will support
the people with physical illness, but often not the people
with mental illness. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change
that you wish to see in the world.” And that’s why I’m speaking up. That’s why I’m asking
for the world to change. I’ve chosen to reveal something
about myself that I’ve hidden for to long. My mental illness and my depression
are no longer a secret. I’m owning myself on this stage. (Applause) I’m willing to face the stigma
because, if I’m silent, the stigma just continues to exist. I’ll offer you three ways
to end the stigma and be the change
that you wish to see in the world. First, change your language. A lot of the stigmas we have
show up in the language we use. Using language like “psycho,”
“schizo,” “retard,” “nuts,” “loony,” “spastic”
and “screws loose” just perpetuates the myths. Social stigma is pervasive. The U.S. National Institute of Medicine
has a list of 250 labels people use to stigmatize
those with mental illness. Change your language
so that it becomes more understanding. Start that understanding
by educating yourself. Although the exact cause
of most mental illness is not known, it’s becoming clear through research
that it’s a combination of psychological, biological,
social and environmental factors. Mental illness is not a flaw in character. Get the facts so that
we can stop the stigma. And third, let’s talk about it. The elephant in the room
is a metaphor for an obvious truth that’s being ignored or unspoken. The best way to deal with an elephant? To name it! Get it out in the open! Let’s talk openly about how mental illness
and suicide affects us all, either directly or through
a family member, colleague or friend. Let’s talk openly about mental illness
and suicide as part of normal life. At the beginning of this talk, I described a reframe
as the ability to see the same set of facts
in an entirely new way. That’s what I’ve been able to do,
a personal reframe. As Andrew Solomon says in his TED talk, the opposite of depression
is not a happiness. It’s vitality. I’ve gone from wanting to die
to wanting to live, because of my renewed vitality. And that’s my hope for this talk, that we as a society can reframe
how we view mental illness and suicide, because as we do, we’ll make care, treatment,
help and support more accessible, and that will diminish
the costs and impact on our families and our society. Because if not us, then who? If not now, when? Let’s recognize that most people
who attempt or die by suicide don’t want to die. They just want relief from the pain. Rather than ask why the suicide,
ask why the pain. Let’s see mental illness for what it is:
it’s an illness just like any other. Everyone with an illness deserves care,
help, treatment and support. The reframe in how we view mental illness
and suicide starts with us. It starts with me. It can start with you. Are you all willing to join me? Let’s change the world! (Applause)

100 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The guy raises many key points but makes one errant analogy. NOBODY DIED AT THE SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL BUILDING therefore Adam Lanza did not exist.

  2. "Rather than ask 'why the suicide?', ask, 'why the pain?' " This is SO POWERFUL. I am in pain because of what my parents did to me and my little sister. I am in pain because I lived the 1st 20 years of my life through physical, psychological, verbal, emotional abuse and neglect. I am in so much pain because I have the ability to emphasize and love people and cannot fathom why my parents chose to do what they did.

  3. Nothing is done about it because the government doesn't see any benefit for the cost – you think this government want people that are aging or diseased or mentally ill – nope the policies say it all

  4. If I could have a candid chat with Jim Carey…I wonder what he'd share…I wonder what Robin Williams would have shared…

  5. I've been in various forms of therapy for over a decade and tried various medications…meds actually made me worse…therapy has not done much either…honestly…I'm not even sure what's keeping me here anymore…there are so many reasons to just end my misery…

  6. The best presentation I have ever seen
    I cried when you cried
    It was lovely to hear so many and so much support. In the room..
    You are loved….fly above the clouds
    And live the rest of your natural life
    Stand tall and proud..
    You made a difference..
    Xxx

  7. I love you thank you for being so brave and talking about your experience strength and hope. I am just like you and am so relieved we are finally taking the shame out of depression and thoughts of suicide so more people can get the help they need and deserve. God bless you.

  8. I wish my brother could have seen this… maybe he would still be here. I just lost him 4 days ago.. this is my new lifes mission, to raise awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. I couldn't stop my brother, but maybe I can save another life in his honor.

  9. Bad example. Reagan's snarky non-answer didn't reframe anything; it avoided a fair question. Mondale also lost that election, in part, because he made the serious mistake of laughing along. The question should have been no laughing matter. America would get four more years of regressive pro-war policies, to include the brutal and disastrous War on Drugs and the impeachable Iran-Contra affair; and, at the end of it all, the mental abilities of the former movie actor with 21,392 nukes under his control WOULD begin to fail.

    "The nuclear buildup also led to increased activity at more than a dozen major aging and unsafe nuclear-weapon production plants and called for continued nuclear testing. Under Reagan’s watch, spending on nuclear weapons research, development, testing, and production totaled $39.5 billion (in constant 1996 dollars), a 39 percent increase over the previous eight-year period.[1] The cost of environmental remediation at these sites now exceeds $6 billion annually."

  10. Strikes a cord with me, thoughts f being alone and helpless. Im so glad you are still in this world and helping to change it

  11. What really bugs me is they always refer to it as a mental illness. I believe it is really an EMOTIONAL ILLNESS and part of the problem is describing is it always is seen as a mental illness. Perhaps depending on the person it might be one or the other. Also in both cases it can be a response to real situations or occurrences that have touched these people. It's not like they are all emotionally or mentally delusional and maybe many if not most people might react in the same way if they experienced what these people experienced. And some commit suicide from not either kind of illness but from a desire to check out before the you know what hits the fan– no depression but a strong desire after a diagnosis– a refusal if you will NOT to have to go through living with cancer or Alzheimer's or other serious diseases. There just isn't enough help available for people who go through these things.

  12. I love these Ted-Talks thank you John, you are making a difference we need you all over the news / schools / medical.. Too many are dying no matter age / race / rich or poor.. my heart goes out to all those touched by such pain ❤️😔 thank you I know the pain and it’s hurtful to hear when ppl say ( suicide is a coward and self ) little do they know it’s soooo painful 😔

  13. Also, if you're going to kill yourself, turning on the car in the garage, door closed, sitting in the seat and just waiting is the way to do it. But be warned, it's likely that things continue to happen to you after death. Consult with yourself before making an irreversible decision like this, walk through the woods on your own contemplating life and death or something because you can't unkill yourself. If suicide is the right option for you though, I've just given you a reliable method to act it out. More than think, contemplate before you act though, I repeat, suicide could be your best option but it likely isn't. Only you'll know if you truly get with yourself.

  14. The thing is when the medical professional tell you that your not depress.I walked out on psychologist after he said that to me,and since then i never talked about it to anyone.

  15. I've tried to get help recently. Out of 6 calls, I got out on 1 waiting list, left 5 messages and a week later have heard nothing. I can't even pay someone to listen.

  16. There is a reason why media do not report suicide on news it's because when the media report a suicide there is more people making suicide attempt that's what i heard !!

  17. When are we going to stop calling things mental illnesses when the molecules in the body are not in balance? Why isn't illness simply illness?

  18. People Don’t Want to Kill Themselves They Just Don’t Know How to Kill the Pain!!!!!!!!!

    Every Thunderstorm Runs Out of Rain!!!!!!

  19. I wish there were a way for me to combat my thoughts, that doesn't involve friends or family, as I have neither… That seems to be what works, but what does someone in my very lonely situation do? I've run out of options. I write this waiting for a call back from the suicide prevention hotline. However, from my conversation with them, I don't think they know how to handle it either…

  20. 6-32 individuals who would assume I was going to commit suicide anyway. Yeah. People like this exist and make you know how they feel if your depression gets in the way of their every day life despite I never talk about it. People are selfish. Hindsight is 20/20.

  21. You explained this very well. I’m so glad that you pointed out mental illness is not a choice therefore your thoughts and actions mislead you just like a terminal illness can eventually cause your mind to forget or other things.

  22. Can someone please help me, Can i talk to one of you reading through the comments. I've been considering suicide.

  23. The Voyage of Return

    I set sail across the desert to leave the pain of misery.

    Searching for the ocean, I have heard so much of its splendid beauty

    and tranquility.

    My sails were full of the hot desert air as I passed motionless dunes.

    I remember what was said to me when searching for content afar.

    “For man is never content as he seeks contentment when he cannot seem to find it.”

    I looked out across my bow and noticed an oasis drawing near. I saw

    a weary traveler with camel at hand, getting drink from the cool.

    Our I eyes had met and I let down my sails and it mysteriously drew me there

    and coasted to his near.

    He asked me, "Son, where does your journey take thee?"

    I replied, "Far away from the pain and misery and to the great ocean of

    splendid beauty and tranquility:”

    He turned and drank another drink from the cool, looked back at me

    and asked, "My Son, what is the heaviest load a man can carry?"

    I pondered, what an odd question he was placing upon me, and could

    not think of a satisfying answer.

    He knew I was alone and puzzled. He spoke, "A grudge, my Son -for he cannot see clearly ahead because of his pains and becomes an inmate of the past."

  24. Good thing I didn't try to do that that's almost a foolproof way to kill yourself how the h*** does a proper hangman's noose slip and come off it doesn't very simple to make a hangman's noose but then again I'm a fisherman and was in the navy so I know how to Tie knots

  25. Suicide is not necessarily a result of mental illness. It’s a choice. Your situation may really be that bad. You really may have no other good options. You may choose suicide rationally.

  26. I wrote a speech about mental illness stigma in 6th grade. Really good speech. They made me change the topic and write a whole new speech. Only two years ago.

  27. For anyone who wants to know of therapy that helps with this. Dialectical Behavior Therapy! It's saving my life. It's designed for BPD but is a lifeboat for all. Heal well, love all.

  28. But how many "accidents" in that chart were intended as suicide? Accidental death and dismemberment insurance is additional money for the family of the deceased. Men consider themselves responsible for their families financial wellbeing even above and beyond their own lives.

  29. I too tried to hang myself 10 years ago. I don’t think I really wanted to die but I didn’t know how to live.
    Happy to say that with help and support my life has been turned around. I never judge 🙏

  30. I cannot believe this that he gave the exact analogy of world trade that I once said to my friend. We were having a discussion on suicide and she said people who commit suicide are weak then I said, a lot of people jumped from the building in 9/11, that's not being weak its just how life feels in depression. Life is like a burning building sometimes. And there is nothing wrong in being weak. You're strong I'm weak. Good for you good for me.

  31. 80% of completed suicides are men. It is a very serious gender equality issue which is never part of the gender equality conversation.

  32. This talk really started a change in how i see my own suicide attempt. I really thought it was my own personal flaw that lead me to do it and i still feel so damn selfish for doing that. Even though i don't judge any other person who tried to kill himself, i do it with me, but for the first time, after a lot of therapy (but in a whole other direction), i see you mr Nieuwenburg made the points i needed to finally feel better about myself. My deepest respect and thanks to you!

  33. That was superbly said! In all honesty I think anyone that has surpassed attempting suicide or getting passed depression are extremely strong individual's. Those who look down on suicidal thought's or suicidal attempt's are those that are weak, maybe they themselves have never felt that overwhelming challenge that has put them to that edge, but as far as I see it as, it's ignorance. As taboo as it is to talk about suicide it's more likely that no one is going to look further into it which continues those myth's or lies behind suicide.

  34. In terms of contents, this is so old school and obvious topic.
    I thought he would logically talk about astonishing ideas like people without depression can suicide or suicide should be respected as an option.

  35. I cried with him. he explained it so well. As someone who has considered it in the past. It is true, you don't know if you want to die, you just want the pain to stop and it is the only way to do it. Wish I could give him a huge hug. He is alive because he has a purpose. and this is it!!!

  36. Politicians and civil society are so afraid to talk about suicide in public policy that they would just rather ignore it and let it happen rather than address it.

  37. It is not reported because it creates a domino affect. Facts show that at least a dozen or more suicides follow a reported suicide…so media does not report it.

  38. When you have gone through EVERY chain of command to cry out for help for so many years and no one comes. Being railroaded. Blackmailed. Blackballed pushes people to failure. I went to leaders , authority figures for help. "No" I went to family and friends. "No".
    Then I made bad decisions and failed horribly. Now, I'm really hated. I never in the past eceived the help in many legal matters that took place in my life and now my failure has justified all the no's in an unjustified way. There is only justice for the masses of people who don't even agree with each other on other important matters to a human child's life and a mother who was ostracized before my failures corrupted my honest validations then.
    Now, it doesnt matter. Who to trust to be at peace? I have not seen the tangible aspects of this support.

  39. My brother hung himself. He gave up. Never give up. You will be dead soon enough. He devastated my family. Think about the people you leave behind. He was given everything. And this is what he gave back. The pain in my mothers face was something i cant describe. Never do that. FK him. I dont give him a second thought. There is to much to do. And not enough time. The people that jumped from the tower did not commit suicide. They wanted to live.

  40. Watching this due to my own suicidality
    So it's like I deny the existence of a mental illness because from here its live seeing things as they really are

  41. Thank you so much. I know you're right deep down. My father was successful in his first try when I was 17 I am now 57. Bless you

  42. "The number one symptom of Depression is the inability to feel pleasure" Stanford's Professor Robert Sapolsky On Depression

  43. Everyone should have the ability to end their life without stigma. Whether ill in some way or they just have a bad life.

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