- Disabled people are at increased risk of suicide
- Media portrayals of disabled people that show death as the best alternative are harmful
- Mental health professionals say that those with invisible disabilities, or those who are not showing obvious signs of distress, are the patients less likely to receive needed care
Information in this article may be triggering to some. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
If you’re a disabled person, particularly an easy-to-spot disabled person thanks to an assistive device, there’s always a moment of apprehension when a stranger approaches you and starts eyeing you up and down.
If you’re lucky, it’s another disabled person asking about what kind of equipment you’re using. More often, it’s a non-disabled person offering you sympathy, asking an inappropriate question, or saying something like, “Good for you, if I had a life like yours, I’d kill myself.”
The awful truth is that disabled people often do choose to end their lives. Recent research from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that disabled people studied were more likely to have suicidal ideation, make plans, and act on those thoughts.
Those conducting the study, from the University of Florida and the University of Utah, found that “the more limitations” a person had, the more likely they were to report suicide-related thoughts and feelings.
The Risk of Casual Mentions of Suicide
Chase Cassine, LCSW, is a Louisiana-based practitioner who says that the kinds of microaggressions like the ones described likely reflect a person who has been conditioned by society to think of a disabled life as a less valuable one, particularly by popular media.
“Let’s talk about that, the negative stereotypes that are portrayed about a person living with a physical disability, that it’s so severe, they can’t do anything for themselves… maybe that has been their frame of reference.”
Chase Cassine, LCSW
People who have disabilities have always been, whether it’s attitudinal discrimination, institutional, medical, they’ve always been discriminated against, and looked at as abnormal. When we’re all people.
Popular media is filled with harmful stereotypes about disabled people.
Whether it’s a movie that provides suicide as the answer to disabled people’s problems (like 2016’s “Me Before You”), the pervasive idea that all neurodivergent people are savants (“The Good Doctor”), or the ever-present concept of inspiration porn (first coined by Australian activist Stella Young), these preconceived notions about disabled people are everywhere.
What’s more, disabled people are expected to want to be better off dead. The media trope itself is called “Better Dead Than Disabled.”
This is all especially concerning when you consider the concept of suicide contagion or suicide clusters, where being exposed to suicidal behavior can increase the risk in someone already considering ending their life.
Cassine says that his approach to mitigating the harm of these passive and yet intrusive mentions of suicide is to be person-centered and help clients recontextualize how they are receiving these painful messages. He says it’s really important to understand the historical context of discrimination against disability in order to provide effective care.
“People who have disabilities have always been, whether it’s attitudinal discrimination, institutional, medical, they’ve always been discriminated against, and looked at as abnormal. When we’re all people.”
How to Create a Shift
Dr. Taish Malone, PhD, LPC, of Mindpath Health says that the clients she works with, many of whom have disabilities, are best served with strategies that allow them to navigate microagressions like casual mentions of suicide.
“Self regulation and concept of self are very important, especially in mitigating underlying vulnerability, which most with chronic health conditions have. Because they are in fact dealing with some impairment. And so it’s common for them to feel or to be encouraged to feel that they are less than others because of what they’re dealing with.”
Malone says that one way allies and supporters can help their loved ones who may be struggling in this way is by not only looking for signs of being withdrawn or down, but also being mindful of others who might be causing harm in their circle.
Dr. Taish Malone, PhD
We should also talk about those with invisible disabilities. There is a hard time for them to get the understanding that those with clear disabilities get because people really go by what they see. And so they might not get the same level of compassion or understanding, because their disabilities are not as visible.
“I feel like an important element might be for loved ones, to look for certain signs in the people that they love, who have disabilities, looking for indicators of depression, or anxiety; and even look for indicators of those who might be loved ones who might be bullying or have oppressive feelings or non-accepting thoughts towards those with disabilities.”
Malone says that reducing the risk of suicide in the disability community requires mental health care professionals to be part of care teams and that while disability is often thought of in relation to a traumatic event, it’s those with chronic health conditions who she sees needing more support.
“We should also talk about those with invisible disabilities. There is a hard time for them to get the understanding that those with clear disabilities get because people really go by what they see. And so they might not get the same level of compassion or understanding, because their disabilities are not as visible.”
For Cassine, reducing mentions of suicide and reducing rates of suicide means a paradigm shift and resisting the clinical urge to jump in and help when disabled people, more often than not, just want a place to be heard.
“You can’t come from that perspective of trying to help and fix it because it’s the client. The client is leading and guiding these sessions. So, think about this: This hypothetical client who has a disability, they’ve already had a lot of things that have made them feel inferior, right? Whether it’s comments from a variety of people [or something else]. So as the health professional in this safe space, I don’t want to further fuel those feelings of inferiority.”
What This Means For You
If you are disabled, know that those casual mentions of suicide levied at you do not go unnoticed. If you’re an ally, be aware of how you can notice and redirect symptoms and behaviors to reduce harm.
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