June 10, 2019

What I Learned about Mental Health after my Husband Committed Suicide.


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There was a time I believed everything society thought of me.

As a suicide survivor, I wasn’t merely suffering from grief after my husband’s suicide, I was also internalizing the stigma that surrounded me.

I felt guilty; surely I didn’t get my husband the help he needed. I felt shame; my husband preferred death over his life with me. And I felt hopeless; this is the kind of event that you never get over.

In my grief, I subscribed to the attitudes and assumptions I’d heard expressed countless times throughout my life. As friends and family, the media, and even I made seemingly meaningless remarks about mental illness, depression, and suicide, it shaped the way I would react when these completely shattered my world. I was a living, breathing self-stigma, and that made life unbearable.

What Self-Stigma Looks Like

Today, I’m dedicated to ending the stigma we’ve built around mental illness and suicide—and that doesn’t happen overnight. It happens from within.

Self-stigma is plaguing those who suffer from depression or other mental health issues—and it could be affecting you and sabotaging your health and happiness. As a professional grief counselor and health educator, I encounter self-stigma constantly, expressed by statements like:

“Why do I even try?”

“Everyone thinks  ___ about me.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“This is just how I am.”

The problem with self-stigma is that it undermines confidence and self-esteem, both of which are crucial for long-term happiness and success. For example, if the stigma surrounding a particular mental illness asserts that those suffering from it are too unreliable and volatile to succeed in the workplace, anyone who attaches that stigma to themselves will have difficultly believing they can land and keep a good job. And if they believe it strongly enough, they likely won’t even apply for it.

Self-stigma is not an excuse. In fact, according to a 2012 Can J Psychiatry article, people with self-stigma often isolate themselves for fear of what family, friends, coworkers, and others think or feel about them—or because they’d like to keep their mental illness a secret. This isolation leads to decreased healthcare services, which in turn may worsen the symptoms of the illness and decrease their quality of life.

Overcoming Self-Stigma

The last thing anyone suffering from mental illness needs is another reason to feel shame. So, if you’re practicing self-stigma, it’s important to recognize that stigma is a cultural problem, but it’s not yours. The negative feelings and stereotypes you believe about yourself and your condition didn’t come from you. They stem from the wide, sweeping ignorance historically exhibited by our society regarding mental health.

Realizing that self-stigma isn’t your own failing, you can then work to shed it. The most basic and essential way to do this is, of course, by seeking professional treatment. Had my husband sought out and stuck with treatment for his depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, he might have realized these “shameful” conditions are not only common, but also treatable.

It’s currently estimated that half of Americans who suffer from mental illness are not receiving the treatment they need. That means these individuals are suffering—often alone and in secret—when there is help available.

Shedding self-stigma requires not just positive action, but also positive thinking and talking. Stigma encourages silence; empowerment breaks that silence. As you’re more open and honest about your mental illness, you encourage others to be as well.

Something as simple as telling a friend about an experience in therapy or creating a social media post that promotes awareness will not only help you stop stigmatizing yourself; it will help break the stigma that’s plaguing our society.

As we work from the inside out, we empower ourselves and others to gain the confidence, health, and happiness we all seek.


author: Kristi Hugstad

Image: Noah Silliman/Unsplash

Image: @elephantjournal on Instagram

Editor: Kelsey Michal


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Rebecca Cable Jun 21, 2019 8:47am

I am so appreciative of this writing. Your honesty a what it was like for you means a great deal. I don’t know why the song of Joni Mitchell came to mind, ” I looked at love from both sides now, from near and far and up and down,”….. But, your very story and sharing helped that. I guess this brought music… “come on people now smile on your brother everybody get together, try to love one another right now”… Now, more than ever we need to share, The pain is real. Thank you so much. I also, live with this very isolating stigma.

ade.knott Jun 21, 2019 8:08am

Such a interesting read I too suffer with depression and anxiety and low self esteem Thankyou for sharing your story??

davidpatrickgreenephd Jun 11, 2019 7:44am

So true! I appreciate your thoughts as I have experienced this stigma firsthand. For years I would isolate myself and remain withdrawn, “not wanting to bother others with my problems” but also ashamed that I couldn’t shake the depression. Thank you for sharing your story and your efforts to end the stigma.

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Kristi Hugstad (The Grief Girl)

For all of Kristi Hugstad’s adult life, she had one clear goal: to provide the highest opportunity for fitness and health to everyone who walks into her studio or gym—a feat she accomplished daily for years until an unimaginable day in October 2012 when in one tragic moment everything changed.

In the wake of epic grief, Kristi’s life has found a new trajectory. She discovered a deep desire to inspire and help those in need, not just physically but emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually. Her mission now is to reach out to those wrestling with grief and offer the opportunity to find a safe place to confront their pain and fears, to address them, change them, and ultimately move through them to a new perspective and new life.

A lifelong athlete and fitness professional, Kristi opened the first spinning studio in Orange County, California in 1995, and has been at the forefront of nearly every major fitness evolution in Southern California ever since. She is without match the quintessential fitness and health trendsetter in OC.

A native of Minnesota, Kristi holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Augsburg College in Minneapolis. She is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, trained in all forms of loss including loss of career, relationships, death, but with special emphasis on issues related to suicide. In 2014, Kristi began facilitating grief recovery workshops for groups and individual therapy. She has quickly become an in-demand public speaker about suicide prevention and grief for schools and civic groups throughout Southern California.

Kristi’s writing has appeared in a number of newspapers and media outlets including The Huffington Post. In April 2019, she was featured on an episode of the CBS show, “The Doctors.” She has a robust social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where she has more than 50,000 followers.

Her book, Beneath the Surface, offers teens practical information on identifying and coping with mental illness, as well as resources for getting help. You can preorder Beneath the Surface on Amazon to arm your child with the mental health information she needs to navigate—and enjoy—the difficult teen years.