How Do We Talk About Suicide?

Obvious content warning: this blog post talks about suicide in a non-descriptive way.

Mental health is hard to talk about. Although we’ve gotten better over the years as a society, there is still a huge stigma, especially around suicide. Suicide is a symptom, just like heart failure is a symptom, but suicide gets talked about very differently. This is partially because it’s difficult to conceptualize behavior as a “symptom” rather than a “choice,” and partially because taboo subjects are often rife with misinformation. I wanted to write a bit about the language we use around suicide, how this feeds into stigma, and how we can change this.

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Language is ever-evolving. All words are made up words. You only understand this text because we have agreed on what each letter symbol should sound like, how those sounds string together to form words, what each of those words mean, and the grammar that connects them into sentences. (Does it blow your mind to think about that? It blows my mind.) So changing the language you use isn’t a big deal! I’m going to go through some common phrases people use when talking about suicide, explain why they are stigmatizing, and provide alternatives that are less problematic.

“They Attempted Suicide” or “They Had A Suicide Attempt.”

This is a common one. Again, because suicide is a “behavior,” it’s hard to conceptualize it as a symptom of underlying mental illness, but this language makes it seem like someone deliberately chose to try and end their lives and disregards the context. Mental illness is medical, so we want to use language that communicates this rather than reinforcing the myth that people with suicidal ideation are being “selfish” or are somehow bad for having the symptoms they have. Furthermore, saying that someone “attempted” suicide implies that they somehow “failed” by surviving. Anything that ends in someone not dying should not be considered a failure!

Instead, say: “They had a suicide behavior.”

“They Want To Kill Themselves.

Like I said before, this ignores the illness component of mental illness. Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts of ending one’s life, and many people who have suicidal ideation do not actually want to die. First, if taken in the broadest sense, I guarantee that every person reading this has, at one time or another, thought, “I wish I was dead.” Maybe something bad happened, or maybe you were generally upset about the state of the world, but that thought has probably popped into your head. For most people, it goes as quickly as it came. But for people with many different diagnoses, they might have this kind of thought often. Some find the thought distressing, some might not want to die but have barriers to accessing support, and some might have plan, means, or intent to act on the thoughts.

But even those who have a history of suicide behavior or who have more active suicidal thoughts do not necessarily “want to kill themselves.” It’s a symptom, an impulse tied to a mental health issue, a desire to not be in emotional pain. Framing it as an active desire is stigmatizing.

Instead, say: “They have suicidal ideation.”

“They Committed Suicide.”

Often, obituaries from people who died from suicide still do not list the person’s cause of death. This is because families continue to feel embarrassment or shame around suicide, which feeds back into stigma and stereotypes about suicide. When it is discussed, we often refer to an individual “committing” suicide. This, again, reinforces the idea that suicide behavior is a deliberate choice rather than a symptom of mental illness. It also gives the false impression that someone who experiences suicidal ideation is “selfish” and only thinking about themselves.

Instead, say: “They died from suicide.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, you can call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or go to this website to chat with someone. Please keep reaching out.

Published by Amy Marschall, Psy.D.

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. Her clinical interests are varied and include child and adolescent therapy, TF-CBT, rural psychology, telemental health, sexual and domestic violence, psychological assessment, and mental illness prevention. Dr. Marschall presently works in the Child and Adolescent Therapy Clinic at Sioux Falls Psychological Services in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she provides individual and family therapy and psychological assessment to children, adolescents, and college students. She also facilitates an art therapy group for adolescents and college students with anxiety and depression. Dr. Amy Marschall is certified in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Telemental Health.

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