“I think we’re definitely in a transition phase right now,” Moutier says, “where there’s both a huge progression of improvement, and a mixture of some of the old assumptions and judgements still floating around. I’m referring to blaming the person for being cowardly, or assuming that suicide is a sudden and unpredictable fluky moment of losing their head. That really goes against the science.”
This cultural transition may be awkward, because as stigma slowly recedes and people become more willing to have these conversations, that doesn’t mean they know how to have them. For example, Pescosolido says she sees among her students more openness to sharing their experiences with mental illness, but they still “don’t know how and when to disclose it.”
Resources like suicide hotlines are important tools, but they are not the only forums for people to talk about what they’re going through, and may not be attractive to everyone in need. On Friday, the day Anthony Bourdain died, many people on Twitter were emphasizing the importance of reaching out to loved ones who seem at risk for suicide, or simply those who are struggling. The model Chrissy Teigen wrote, “In my deepest, darkest postpartum depression, I would have personally never called a phone number.”
Pescosolido has a theory, based on some of the sociologist Émile Durkheim’s late-19th-century writings on suicide. People are quick to blame loneliness and a lack of social integration for suicide, she says. “The other dimension that we tend to forget about is how much people guide you, and oversee what you do, and tell you when you screw up and help you right your path—the regulation that social networks accomplish in your life,” she says, wondering whether “the ability of your family, friends, or society to guide you is what’s been going away, not so much the lack of connectedness.”
Sometimes a restricting sort of politeness, the desire not to bother each other, can build walls between people, especially in a time when we’re hyperaware of how many other texts and emails and Facebook notifications our friends are probably getting. Pescosolido posits that society has come to focus on the rights of individuals, to the detriment of people’s obligations to each other. “I think that comes at a social cost,” she says. Formerly taboo subjects like suicide have become less off-limits as stigmas have eased, but these shifts take time.
“In the 1950s, you never told anybody you had cancer,” she says. “Many problems have gone through this, and we’ve made progress on others. Issues with the mind, and the brain, and personal relationships are the last frontier. They’re the last thing we need to learn how to talk about.”