What's the 'Right' Way to Talk About Suicide?


Of the conversations I have, most of them revolve around my major (anthropology) or my passions (mental health and women’s rights). The best part is my major covers issues related to my passions and gives me a way to think about things I otherwise might not have. Like stigmas surrounding suicide survivors.

I have issues with the terminology used to talk about suicide. Not because I believe we shouldn’t talk about it (because we should), but because of the words we use that can imply things we may not mean. Ultimately, it comes down to two questions:

1. What is it that clearly communicates suicide (or living after) without bringing with it any negative connotations?

2. What do we call people who live after?

So I was thinking about it, about all I knew and had at my disposal and about what to use instead. I spent hours on websites like To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and reading through IMAlive (where I hope to volunteer one day!) so I could come up with a list of what is being used and how I feel it might be helpful to or hinder the cause. Below are some phrases and my thoughts. (An * indicates phrases I’m going to discuss later on.)

“Commit suicide”

This harkens back to when suicide was a crime and attemptees* who lived were tried as criminals. From Wikipedia:

“Before the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded could also potentially be prosecuted. In part, that criminalization reflected religious and moral objections to suicide as self-murder.”

I feel this carries the implication that people who die on their own terms are criminals, and those with suicidal ideation are premeditating murder. That’s not right.

“Successful suicide”

I have problems with this phrase because I feel “success” will always carry the connotation of “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose,” and it seems to me when people use that phrasing, they might be implying they wanted the person to die. I can’t get behind that.

“Unsuccessful suicide”

This is the bigger problem I have with “successful suicide.” If an attempt is made and the person lives, under “successful suicide,” that person would be labeled “unsuccessful.” The problem I have with that is a person who attempted suicide and lived likely reached a point in their lives where they felt there were no other options, and the first thing they hear afterwards may be, “You couldn’t even kill yourself.” Imagine telling someone who probably felt like they failed at life in every possible way that they also failed at death. I think that’s a terrible idea.

“Died from depression

I brought this one up as an alternative, but the truth of the matter is this one is conditional. I was reading recently about a police officer who chose his death because he’d become corrupt and didn’t want to go to jail. In this case, it wasn’t caused by depression, and therefore the phrase isn’t applicable. However, in other cases, “died from depression” can be completely applicable.

“Died from a complication of depression”

Like the point above, this is conditional. I framed this one by saying the following: If someone had cancer and the coroner put “pulmonary embolism” as the cause of death, we wouldn’t say, “They died of a pulmonary embolism.” We’d say, “They died of cancer.” The embolism was a complication caused by cancer. The problem with “complication of depression”? It can take a while to explain and is extremely conditional.

“Selfish suicide” (also: “coward’s death”)

I take offense to this one — and many others do as well. If there comes a time when suicide is being seriously contemplated because of depression, it is the furthest thing from selfish. The person often feels that taking themselves out of the lives of their loved ones will make those loved ones’ lives less painful, less complicated. Or perhaps it’s a matter of not wanting to continue hurting (either physically or mentally, or maybe both).

“Suicide attempt”

Attempt: “make an effort to achieve or complete.” I know this is what’s been used often in the past, but just as with “success,” this seems a little insensitive to me. Now, I don’t know if there’s anything I feel would be better. My problem with it comes from the fact that if you attempt something, you either “fail” or “succeed” — and we’ve already gone over that issue.

“Planned/spontaneous suicide”

These are relatively new introductions to the vocabulary choices. The only issue I have with these goes back to the “committed” issue. “Planned” can sound a lot like “premeditated,” and that is definitely a word many associate with crime. The problem I have with “spontaneous” is, for the person, it’s seldom spontaneous. The thoughts are there — whether the “spectators” can see it or not. “Spontaneous” indicates to me that people may not have been able to see the signs.

“Suicide fatality/non-fatal suicide”

I tried this set, and had mixed success. I think it works better than “successful/unsuccessful,” but it’s so mechanical. This is what I expect medical professionals, counselors and other professionals to use. Having been in the medical field for a short time, I understand this phrasing would come in handy for clear and precise communication, which is why I was using it. But it seems disconnected, cold and jargon-y.

“Attemptee”

The person who lives can be faced with more issues than they had pre-incident. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. With that in mind, as I discussed above, I’m not sure “attempt” is the right verb choice. Depression can warp the meaning of words quicker than most anything, so for the sake of the person, perhaps this isn’t something to use.

“Victim”

This goes back to “crime” terminology. And for that reason, I can’t get behind it.

“Survivor”

This is the one I use for the simple fact that the definition means exactly what I want it to. Survivor: “a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.” Other people may have died from the same method, and that person lived. I feel it carries with it the same respect it does with other things you survive: disease, sexual assault, natural disasters, etc. And it denotes that the living is still in progress.

Ultimately, we need more people talking about suicide and the bigger picture of mental illnesses and mental health. But we also need survivors and people with these diagnoses to talk candidly about their experiences. If nobody talks about these issues, there won’t be any changes, and that’s not going to help anybody.

Image via Thinkstock.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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