A new doctoral dissertation finds that talking about suicide is associated with such strong stigma that young people whose parents have taken their own life often must turn to the internet to express their grief and receive support.
The thesis represents the view of Anneli Silvén Hagström from Linköping University in Sweden. Given that Sweden has a socialist health care system, Hagström laments that the healthcare system is not providing support for young people in the difficult life situation.
However, she admits the root problem is cultural. The topic is relevant as around 1,500 people take their own life in Sweden each year, five times as many as deaths in road accidents in the country. They leave behind relatives, who in many cases are left to cope with their grief on their own.
“If your house is burgled, several organizations whose task is to support the victims of crime may contact you and ask how you’re feeling. But not many people ask how you’re feeling when a parent has taken his or her own life. Nor does the healthcare system, which really should take this up. It’s clear that the system often does not know what young people need,” says Hagström, a social worker who recently received her doctoral degree.
In the paper, Hagström examines how young people in Sweden cope with the suicide of a parent. Hagström takes a unique focus with an analysis of young people’s narratives of the suicide. She did this by performing research interviews, two different chat forums on the internet, and a theatre performance put on by a young woman that deals with her mother’s suicide.
As may be expected, the central element in a person’s grief is the question as to why? The thesis shows that young people become extremely concerned with the question of why their parent died, which is unusual following other causes of death. They wonder about the true identity of the parent and, as an extension of this, their own true identity, as a child of someone who could take their own life.
The study also shows that the stigma associated with suicide is very strong, and this contributes to the difficulty of dealing with the loss. The stigma is reinforced by, for example, people around the young people avoiding them, or by the idea that may reach their ears that the parent who took his or her own life was selfish, leaving the child behind.
These are preconceived ideas that the young people absorb, and adopt as their own. This means that the image of the parent — who has in most cases been a good figure before death — becomes colored by the suicide. The consequence may be, in addition to feelings of shame, guilt, and abandonment, powerful anger targeted against the dead parent.
The young people describe also how they avoid talking about the suicide with people close to them — even in some cases with their family. In order to free themselves and the dead parent from the stigma, they seek actively a space outside of their everyday relationships, which may be on the internet, for example.
“Our refusal to talk about suicide is a cultural problem. What I noticed in the interviews was that the young people eventually reach the conclusion that their parent had not actively chosen to commit suicide, nor had they had the ability to predict the long-term consequences.
“The young people were able to start to reach an alternative understanding of the suicide through their conversations with others, in non-judgmental contexts. It was possible for them in this way to become reconciled with the dead parent,” says Anneli Silvén Hagström.
Hagström believes several proactive strategies could be implemented to both reduce suicide risk and improve survivor mental health. She explains that previous research has shown that children of people who commit suicide run a higher risk of experiencing social and psychological problems, and even committing suicide themselves. Therefore, starting to work actively with this group would thus be a measure to reduce the rate of suicide.
Hagström believes that the professional groups that come into contact with these young people, such as teachers, social workers, and psychologists, must acquire deeper knowledge about how to deal with people affected. It is important to create space for the question of why the parent took his or her own life, and to break the stigma.
The thesis shows also that death does not mean the end of a young person’s relationship with the parent. The continued relationship can provide healing in grief, and professionals should for this reason encourage it.
“The grief here is a complicated grief. The last thing that the young people want is to be like the dead parent, to be in a bad way, and reactions to the loss can arouse the fear that they themselves will take their own life. But knowing how the young people think makes it possible to calm their fears and assure them: ‘This is normal for someone in your situation’.”