Saturday, December 12, 2009

Suicide and the Problem of Stigma

A recent op-ed in the NY Times discusses the difficult issue of stigma in relation to the White House policy of not sending presidential condolences to families of armed forces members who commit suicide as is done for those who die of other causes. See:

It is a familiar problem in social policy generally, although little discussed these days. The assumption is that stigma is bad and destigmatization good. The difficulty is that stigma has always served as a form of social control to discourage behavior that is socially disapproved. It works, though at great cost to stigmatized individuals. When behavior is destigmatized or--in the case of suicide, even "glorified" as the author puts it--there is more of it. Consider, for example, divorce (and the demonstrable impact of "no fault" divorce which ended marriage as a binding contract) or single parenthood, or suicide. Suicide prevention advocates, in my experience, assume that destigmatization helps. But then how to deal with the awkward fact that when you destigmatize a behavior, you get more of it?

When people want to minimize a behavior of which they disapprove, they seek to stigmatize, and often to criminalize it. Consider drunk driving and MADD, or sexual harassment in the workplace. So it is a mistake to see the issue in terms of conservatives' favoring stigma and liberals opposing it. Both favor the use of the areas where they want to change personal behavior through public policy.

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