Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Why Is There Shame in Talking About Shame?

What's the connection between shame and suicide?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about shame. I’ve been keeping most of my thoughts about shame to myself—it’s not the kind of thing that you usually talk about with people. Researcher, teacher, and fellow social worker, Brené Brown, talks about why talking about shame doesn’t happen easily:

On a plane trip to Cleveland, Brown was asked, “So what do you do and why are you going to Cleveland?”

Brown responded, “I’m a researcher and I’m going to give a lecture at Case.”

“How wonderful,” the woman responded. “What do you study?”

Brown leaned toward the woman and said, over the sounds of the plane taking off, “Women and shame.”

“Women in chains!” exclaimed the woman. “That’s so interesting. Tell me more about it.”

When Brown clarified that she actually researches women and shame, the conversation came to a screeching halt.

I relate so strongly to the story Brown tells (in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power). Talking about suicide is just like talking about shame, because talking about suicide so often is talking about shame.

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I started reading about shame after I posted on this blog about postpartum depression. I heard from women who shared stories of feeling tremendous shame around different parts of their identities as women. And I started thinking about shame compounded by shame - the shame that a woman might experience if she doesn’t feel all the things that she’s “supposed” to feel after having a baby, and then the shame she might feel with a diagnosis of depression.

All of this thinking about shame made it even harder than it usually is for me to separate mental illness and suicide. I so often see the connections as inextricable. Is shame yet another connection between mental illness and suicide?

Does shame keep us silent about mental illness, increasing risk for suicide? If a suicide occurs, is the shame around that self-inflicted death so strong that it keeps us from talking about it—even if talking about it can help heal?

Is there shame in talking about shame?

Absolutely.

Should there be?

No way.

We’ve gotten trapped in what Brown would call a shame spiral when we’re talking about suicide. What I mean to say is that we’ve gotten trapped in a shame spiral when we’re not talking about suicide.

Making ourselves vulnerable by taking risks and talking about suicide helps us grow. It helps expand understanding about suicide, about what puts people at risk and what helps people persevere. The more we talk about suicide, the less shame we’ll feel talking about suicide.

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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