For the media

Use these phrases to lessen the stigma of suicide

By The Health News Team | November 17, 2023
Mother and daughter hugging

Suicide remains a difficult topic to discuss. However, suicide is a serious issue — staying silent isn’t the answer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates increased by more than 35% from 2020 to 2021, when more than 40,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide. This is one death every 11 minutes. The same year, there were more than one million suicide attempts, making suicide the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.

Stigma, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about mental illness and suicide can lead many people to feel hesitant or frightened to talk about it. Adjusting the words we use to discuss suicide is an important step in lessening the harmful stigma and ultimately, a way to start saving lives.

“Some of the most harmful misconceptions about people with mental health conditions are that they are weak or have a character flaw,” says Shanette Smith, LMFT, a lead clinical program developer at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “If we lead from a place of compassion, and use language that reflects that compassion, we will create a safer place to encourage others to seek help.”

Words matter

Smith recommends replacing a few common phrases associated with suicide with words that are more mindful and respectful. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide,” Smith recommends we say “died by suicide,” “death by suicide” or “lost a life to suicide.”

“The word ‘commit’ suggests that someone is carrying out a crime or a heinous act, which perpetuates the stereotype that people who attempt suicide are selfish,” Smith says. “Oftentimes, people who have suicidal thoughts also have depression, which is a mental health condition. Saying ‘died by suicide’ — a neutral description — removes shame and blame.”

In addition, the terms “died by suicide” or “survived or lived through a suicide attempt” are preferred to the more common phrases, “successful or unsuccessful suicide.” Describing a suicide as either successful or unsuccessful implies that suicide is a type of positive achievement when, in reality, it is a tragic occurrence.

Additionally, instead of saying someone is “suicidal,” Smith recommends saying someone “has suicidal thoughts” or “is experiencing suicidal thoughts.”

“When you describe someone as suicidal, it can imply that all of their identity is about suicide,” Smith says. “Using person-first language denotes that the person’s identity has elements other than just suicide. Their life experience is filled with other qualities and occurrences than merely suicidal thoughts.”

Often, Smith laments, the media sensationalizes suicide. In using the wrong words to discuss suicide, reports of suicide can lead to people considering or attempting to imitate the act.

“The media can reinforce the belief that suicide cannot be prevented, which is not true,” Smith says. “There are various ways to prevent suicide, such as with early detection and management of symptoms.”

How you can help

Offering a moment of comfort, hope or peace — no matter how small — to someone who experiences suicidal thoughts can create positive ripple effects, Smith says. And because people who appear strong can be suffering in silence, it's critical to check in with everyone regarding their mental health.

“When we see that someone is not showing up, pulling away, acting out or simply ‘not themselves,’ acknowledge the change and offer support,” Smith says. “I encourage everyone to lead with compassion.”

Be the one to speak up, ask, offer support and assist them in getting the help they need.

If you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which is available 24 hours a day by calling or texting 988 from anywhere in the country. For additional assistance, Sharp Mesa Vista is here to help. Please call 858-836-8434.

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