Suicide remains a difficult topic to discuss. However, suicide is serious — in 2019, it was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death for people age 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 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 senior specialist 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.”
Smith recommends replacing a few common phrases associated with suicide with words that are more mindful and respectful.
Died by suicide
Instead of saying someone “committed suicide,” 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/lived through a suicide attempt” are preferred to the more common phrase, “successful/unsuccessful suicide.” Describing a suicide as either successful or unsuccessful implies that suicide is a type of positive achievement when it is a tragic occurrence. Oftentimes the media glamorizes suicide, which can lead to some people attempting to imitate it.
“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.”
Experiencing suicidal thoughts
Instead of saying someone is “suicidal,” say 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 other elements than just suicide; their life experience is filled with other qualities and occurrences than merely suicidal thoughts.”
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 because people who appear strong can be suffering in silence, it is 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. I encourage everyone to lead with compassion,” she says.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. For additional assistance, Sharp Mesa Vista is here to help. Please call 858-836-8434.