“Stigma causes shame, shame causes silence, silence hurts us all”
From the first time I read this, I was intrigued. Intrigued in a positive way for sure, but I couldn’t quite figure out why.
I joined Active Minds at the University of Maine just a couple weeks into my first semester. Almost instantly I felt connected to our mission and the importance of ending stigma. Coincidentally, every year around the beginning of October, UMaine hosts a suicide prevention walk. Seeing as the walk’s purpose aligns so much with our mission, my chapter always gets involved by walking as a team, helping to advertise, volunteering, or all of the above. So during my freshman year, just weeks into being an Active Minds member, I was volunteering with my chapter setting up and get ready for walkers to arrive when someone informed us that the bead necklaces that they make available for participants to wear were out. The beads, which they call honor beads, use different colors to signify your connection to the cause: Blue means you support the cause, purple means you’ve lost a friend to suicide, orange means you lost a sibling, green means you’ve personally struggled, etc. We proceeded to each put on a blue one and a few people grabbed a purple one, too.
I stared at the pile of green necklaces like it was taunting me. There I was, with this new-found passion for fighting the stigma and promoting positive conversation, and yet I was afraid to mark myself as someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts. I looked around and saw that another chapter member had put a green one on so I followed suit, suddenly less afraid to out myself.
For weeks after the walk, this hesitation to admit my struggles, even in an environment that I knew wouldn’t judge me, plagued my mind. Eventually I realized that to not wear those beads would have been a form of silence for me. Silence that was rooted in shame, which was rooted in all of the stigma that I had internalized as a teenager. I realized that even as someone who would label himself a mental health advocate I was caught right in the trap of stigma, the kind that convinces you to stay silent because that’s what feels safe. When you’re silent, no one can criticize you for your problems or the shame they make you feel. When you’re silent, as far everyone else is concerned, you’re okay. And for years that had been good enough for me. But suddenly it wasn’t anymore. That green necklace was like the key to a door which opened into a sense of empowerment that I hadn’t known before. If stigma caused shame, which caused silence, then can’t breaking our silence challenge our shame and ultimately reduce the stigma that oppresses everything in its path? The more I thought about it, the more I felt energized by this revelation. Silence became an adversary, just like stigma. One I vowed to fight with my own voice.
That was three years ago, and my affinity for connecting with others and storytelling has been growing ever since. I’ve realized that my personal connection to stigma is defined by silence. I’ve also realized that my tendency to be silent is a battle that I still fight sometimes, and getting to this point didn’t happen overnight. Silence still feels more comfortable at times, but I’ve learned time and time again that it is not nearly as rewarding as being open and using my voice to educate, advocate, and connect with others. Every time I’m able to share a piece of my story, I hope that I’m helping to open a door for someone else.
As I write this, the annual UMaine suicide prevention walk is less than a week away, and I can’t wait to put on the green beads again and connecting with others who have been affected by suicide and mental illness. I think that’s what keeps me coming back to this mission. It’s what has me walking into every chapter meeting with the energy of a kid when the recess bell rings.