Confronting the Cultural Taboos of Suicide and Mental Illness


Hands down, the following video testimonial is the most challenging, courageous appeal for confronting the cultural taboos of suicide and mental illness. John Nieuwenburg is an award-winning business coach and the owner of W5 Coaching. But unknown to some, John attempted suicide a few years ago. Rather than collapsing emotionally & socially from this failed attempt, John began a journey of reflection and healing. This 18 minute lecture is a direct result of this journey. John spoke before an audience at the TEDX Stanley Park Talks on May 23, 2015 in Vancouver Canada. Through his own personal reframe, John believes in the need for publicly confronting the cultural taboos of suicide and mental illness. In my humble opinion, this heart wrenching appeal should be viewed by everyone, and I mean everyone! Summary lecture notes are provided with this post. In addition, I have created a complete word-for-word transcript of his speech which is downloadable as a PDF.

The Suicide Attempt     Download Speech Transcript

On the morning of May 25th, 2011 John Nieuwenburg attempted suicide by tying a rope into a hangman’s noose, putting it around his neck, and then jumping from a log. Obviously something went wrong and he survived. Months and months of prolonged anguish had led John to this point of desperation. Later on someone told him that he was lucky to be alive. But that was not what John felt at the time. He was bitterly disappointed to find himself alive. John had spent 4 hours hiking through the park to find a suitable spot to end his life. After the failed attempt, he was emotionally and physically exhausted. He was at the end of himself and had nothing left. Or so it would seem.


So why the lecture? At present, there are strong cultural taboos in discussing suicide. Nearly everyone who attempts or dies by suicide has a mental illness at the time. Unfortunately, suicide victims are seen as having a character flaw by the public at large. Simply stated, mental illness and suicide are stigmatized. As long as this state of affairs exists, these syndromes will remain a hidden but very real public health threat. And everyone involved will continue to suffer. John’s hope is for the destigmatization of suicide and mental illness through cultural change.

Reframe Defined

We need a new method for destigmatizing suicide. Our societal status quo mindset is broken. John suggests the need for a cultural reframe. A reframe is the ability to see a set of facts in an entirely new way. Consider the case of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential race. At the time he was 73 and his opponent, Walter Mondale, was 56. Reagan performed poorly during the the 1st presidential debate. The public viewed his less than stellar performance as a direct result of his age. During the second debate a journalist asked Reagan whether or not he was fit to be President and whether or not his age was going to be an impediment to his ability to do the job. Reagan replied I will not make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and experience.’ As a result, his age was never again a factor in the campaign. Can you see how he skillfully reframed the facts so that we saw them in an entirely different way?

The Facts About Suicide

In order to formulate a reframe, we first must consider the facts about suicide.

  1. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Suicide does not get the same public attention as cancer and heart disease.
  2. Consider this: Every year there are approximately 40,000 suicides in the U.S. and only 10,000 homicides. Are you surprised that there are 2½ times more suicides than homicides in the U.S?
  3. Experts believe that for every suicide there are 25 attempts, which is about a million per year in the U.S. Again, there are about 1,000,000 suicide attempts annually in the U.S.
  4. The Center for Disease Control estimates that on average a suicide costs about $1,000,000. The total annual national cost is $34 billion dollars in medical costs and lost work productivity.
  5. Most tragic of all, 6 to 32 surviving family members, friends, and colleagues will suffer and grieve their loss as a result of 1 suicide.
  6. So the next time you hear of a murder, John challenges you to take a moment to consider that in that same time there have been 3 suicides and 75 attempts.
  7. When someone commits a murder it makes the news.  When someone dies by suicide… nothing.  It’s silence.
  8. Suicide happens much more often than we realize and is much more likely to affect our families and our society.


How does someone get to a place where suicide seems like the best option, in fact the only option. Over 90% of the people who attempt or die by suicide have a mental illness at the time and the most common mental illness is depression. Depression makes suicide seem like a reasonable way to solve the problems you face. Fact studies have shown that in 100% of cases suicide is seen as a solution for emotional pain and hopelessness. Now you may say suicide is not a solution. But that’s what makes depression so insidious. When you’re depressed, suicide looks like it makes sense. After John’s suicide attempt, he received an unexpected gift, the unconditional love and support of his partner Jennifer and 2 of my brothers, Roy and Jim, with whom she shared my secret. It was with their help that he survived. At the time, John didn’t think they’re help was available. Clearly, he was wrong. It’s another example of how depression corrodes your thinking.

Public Mindsets on Suicide

When thinking about suicide people often say 1 of 3 things. First, some people say that suicide is an act of cowardice. Do you think the people that jumped off the World Trade Center, in order to avoid burning alive, took the coward’s way out that day? My guess is you don’t. No one attempts or dies by suicide because they want to die. Suicide is not an act of cowardice. It’s a desperate act to get relief from the pain. Secondly, some people say suicide is selfish. Are the people who get cancer or heart disease selfish? Of course not. Getting a clinical mental disorder affects your ability to think, your mood, and your judgement. Suicide is not the problem rather it’s the result of the underlying illness. Rather than ask why suicide, ask why the pain? And third, some people say that suicide is a cry for help. One Harvard study of 286 people found that 42% agree with the statement ‘My suicide attempt was a cry for help, I did not mean to die.’ The majority 58% agree with the statement ‘I made a serious attempt to kill myself, I’m lucky to be alive.’ In my case, I made a serious attempt and I am lucky to be alive.

Challenging Public Stigmas

The stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.  In speaking of stigmas, is depression a mental illness or a character flaw? And secondly, who or what do you think of when you think of people with mental illness? Do you think of people living on the margins of society when you think of people suffering from mental illness?  The only people with mental health issues are people with issues.  Or perhaps when you think of mental illness, you think of the a who committed the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Or maybe your model of mental illness is shaped by the movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with that oppressive head nurse Ratchet. And that the best way to treat mental illness is with a lobotomy. Friend if that’s what comes to mind for you, perhaps it will surprise you to learn that:

  • Jim Carrey who’s made a career making us laugh has depression, he’s battled it for decades.
  • After returning from the moon Buzz Aldrin coped with depression, after all he’d been to the moon and back, what is there left to live for?
  • Hey, do you know that song by Elton John called Someone Saved My Life Tonight? It’s about his suicide attempt in 1969.
  • And that Billy Joel has long coped with depression and in 1970 he attempted suicide.
  • And even tough-as-nails football players like Brandon Marshall can have a mental illness.
  • With the shocking death of Robin Williams, we learned that he’d coped with depression and mental illness for decades.
  • So the people with mental illness are not just people on the margins of society. People with mental illness are just like me and some of you. That’s right 1 in 4 people has a mental health problem. And many more people have a problem with that.

Mental Health Facts

Now is the time to get the facts about mental illness and suicide because as long as mental illness and suicide are stigmatized it will remain a hidden but very real public health threat. The Director General of the World Health Organization says that mental illness is not a personal failure. If there’s a failure to be found it’s in the way we’ve responded to people with mental and brain disorders. Treatment is available but nearly ⅔ of the people with a known mental illness never seek help from a health professional. Our society and culture will support the people with physical illness but often not the people with mental illness. Gandhi famously said ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’  And that’s why I’m speaking up. That’s why John is asking for the world to change. John bravely chose to reveal something about himself that he had hidden for too long. His mental illness and depression are no longer a secret. He outed myself on a stage in Vancouver Canada. John was & is willing to face the stigma because if he remains silent the stigma just continues to exist.

End the Stigma

John offers us 3 ways to end the stigma and the change that you wish to see in the world.

  1. Change your language. A lot of the stigmas we have show up in the language we use. Using language like psycho, schizo, retard, nuts, loony, spastic, and a screws loose just perpetuates the myths. Social stigma is pervasive. The U.S. National Medicine Institute has a list of 250 labels people use to stigmatize those with mental illnessChange your language so that it becomes more understanding.
  2. Start that understanding by educating yourself. Although the exact cause of most mental illness is not known, it’s becoming clear through research that it’s a combination of psychological, biological, social, and environmental factors. Mental illness is not a flaw in character. Get the facts so that we can stop the stigma.
  3. Let’s talk about it.  The elephant in the room is a metaphor for an august truth that’s being ignored or unspoken.  What is the best way to deal with an elephant:  to name it!  Get it out in the open. Every time we talk about this matter, we are confronting the cultural taboos of suicide and mental illness. Let’s talk openly about how mental illness and suicide affects us all either directly or through a family member, colleague, or a friend. Let’s talk openly about mental illness and suicide as part of normal life.


Time for a Worldwide Reframe

At the beginning of this lecture John described a reframe as the ability to see the same set of facts in an entirely new way. That’s what he has been able to do, a personal reframe. As Andrew Solomon says in his TED talk, the opposite of depression is not happiness. It’s vitality. John has gone from wanting to die to wanting to live because of his renewed vitality.  And that’s John hope for this talk, that we as a society can reframe how we view mental illness and suicide.  Because as we do, we will make care, treatment, help, and support more accessible and that will diminish the costs and impact on our families and our society.  Because if not us, then who?  If not now, when?  Let’s recognize that most people who attempt to die by suicide don’t want to die.  They just want relief from the pain.  Rather than ask why the suicide, ask why the pain?  Let’s see mental illness for what it is.  It’s an illness just like any other.  Everyone with an illness deserves care, help, treatment, and support.  The reframe and how we view mental illness and suicide starts with us.  It starts with me.  It can start with you.  Are you willing to join me?  Let’s change the world!

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About Kevin

Kevin is an engineer, physicist, and author. As a result, his creations span the globe. He has a knack for developing simple smart solutions to difficult problems. He is the creator of the MakeTrix. The MakeTrix fulfills Kevin’s lifelong dream. His dream is to provide free technical solutions to the world.

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