It wasn’t all that long ago that many people wouldn’t say “cancer” in polite conversation. Because the disease was so deadly and so poorly understood, mentioning that someone had The Big C could seem to imply that the person had brought the misery of the disease on himself or herself.
Although that stigma persists in some ways—lung cancer, for example, is still culturally tied to tobacco use—things have gotten a lot better. People shave their heads in solidarity with loved ones going through chemo, and breast-cancer pink is the stuff of corporate-marketing legend.
Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, hopes Americans’ understanding of suicide is on a similar path. “Cancer was shameful to think about or talk about, which shows you how much things really can change,” she told me in an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “Mental health is just now undergoing that period of growth and transition that’s informed by science, but the average person doesn’t really understand all that yet.”
Even in psychiatry, Moutier explained, suicide was “kind of an orphan topic, and from a clinician standpoint, it didn’t fit into any diagnostic category on its own. Suicide was not looked at from a lens of health at all, but like a behavioral thing that people did for unclear reasons.”