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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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Shake Off Those Taboos – And Talk!


“You know he’s one of those…” She looks around, before she leans close to her friend, heaves her bosom and, her tongue thick with discomfort, whispers with exaggerated mouth movements, “homothexual”.

I’ve spent a very happy half hour trawling through old clips on YouTube searching but I can find no evidence that Les Dawson’s wonderful (if dated) creation Ada ever said this to her friend Cissie (played by Roy Barraclough). Perhaps it’s something my friend Andy invented; the gay community has a long tradition of using humour to parody and belittle the prejudice it’s faced over the years.

Whether real or not though, it perfectly captures the embarrassment people felt discussing sexuality at a time when the subject was largely taboo. 

It’s easy to imagine conversations like this going on at the bus stop, or behind closed doors in the 1970s and 1980s. Blimey, I know for a fact that they were still going on in parts of rural Devon in the 2010s!

When people feel uncomfortable discussing something they don’t understand, it creates a stigma that directly impacts the ability to have meaningful conversations around that topic. It even impacts the language we use, often adding a cloak of shame to the words we use that can make it more difficult for people to find the help and support they really need and deserve. Back in the day for example, the question “Are you Gay?” (which, in the right hands, could be neutral) was much more likely to be expressed in terms such as, “You’re not “one of those” are you?” 

These memories were brought back to me powerfully one evening last week when I attended a brilliant session run by Andrea Newton. Except, we weren’t discussing sexuality, we were learning about suicide awareness.

You see, suicide is another topic where stigma gets in the way of us having meaningful conversations or providing support and help to those who need it. 

As Andrea pointed out, we talk about people ‘committing’ suicide, harking back to a time when suicide was a crime. Whilst it’s still a crime in some countries, it has not been a crime in the UK since 1961. The act of labelling it a crime can add to a sense of shame and, often failure, that people contemplating suicide are already struggling with. That is never going to be helpful. Andrea suggests instead we use phrases like, ‘ending their life by suicide’.

Suicide though is one of those uncomfortable words we tend to shy away from. Think about what you might say to someone at the end of their tether; feeling overwhelmed, struggling to see a way through their current situation. Perhaps something like, “You’re not going to do something silly are you?” 

Suggesting that someone already struggling is silly is, again, unlikely to help. There’s a judgement in those words. They imply that to have those feelings are wrong; that they should be dispelled; that they’re again, something to feel ashamed of; a point of failure.

There was so much I learnt from Andrea’s session. I learnt, for example, that 6,000 people in the UK alone die by suicide every year; that each of those deaths causes significant psychological harm to perhaps another 15 people. I learnt about the signs that might suggest someone is having suicidal thoughts. I reflected on the fact that we all have vulnerabilities and that those contemplating suicide may have simply reached a point of overwhelm they can’t, on their own, see a way back from. That people contemplating suicide probably don’t feel valued or indeed see the value in themselves.

But the most important lesson, for me, was around language and the impact a change in language might have. I learnt that there’s no shame in having open conversations about suicidal thoughts, in saying to someone “I’m a bit worried about you, are you ok?”

Of asking twice, “Are you sure you’re ok?” 

And perhaps most importantly, of having the courage to ask, “Others in your situation might have suicidal thoughts, is that something you’ve experienced?” It might feel intrusive, we might feel embarrassed, but we need to break taboos around language because an honest, meaningful conversation might just contribute to saving someone’s life.

For those of you who’d like to know more about Andrea’s work, here is a link to her website

Please do share this article if you feel it would be useful to others, and, as always, all feedback and comments are welcome.

Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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