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We Can Change How Our Society Talks About Suicide

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with a friend. We were talking about how we were both preparing to leave the teaching profession. Her exact words were, “If I had to go back another year, I would either slit my wrists or strangle a kid.”

I sat silently gobsmacked and unable to find the words to express the pain elicited by her flippant words. This woman knows my son died by suicide. Before Tom died in 2015, I used what I now understand to be stigmatizing language around suicide and mental health conditions. I did not do so purposely; I was simply speaking about the topics the way I heard others do so. It was not until I started researching about suicide in order to become an advocate and trainer on the topic that I became educated about appropriate ways to discuss and depict mental health conditions and suicide. Using best practice language is important because it helps to decrease the stigma around mental illness so those who are struggling can talk openly about it and pursue treatment options without fear of judgment, ridicule or shaming. Therefore, I would like to share some insights with you in hopes you will choose to transition into using non-stigmatizing language.

In a 2017 Psychology Today article entitled, “Ten Commandments for How to Talk About Mental Health,” Dr. David Susman suggests:

  • When using diagnostic terms, put the person first. Instead of saying, “My neighbor is bipolar,” say, “My neighbor lives with bipolar disorder.” This language allows us to think of the person, rather than the mental health condition first.
  • Avoid insensitive terms (crazy, insane, psycho, nuts, etc.) to describe someone. For example, use the phrase, “She frustrates me,” instead of, “She makes me crazy.”
  • Avoid using diagnostic or mental health terms to explain individual idiosyncrasies. Instead of saying, “I am so OCD about my clothes closet,” you might say, “Everything in my closet has its own place.”
  • Use the phrases “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide,” and “attempted suicide” rather than “attempted to commit suicide.” The word “committed” as related to suicide ties back to a time when suicide was a crime. In addition, in some religious circles it is considered sinful. In both cases, this language creates a negative connotation. Talking in non-judgmental ways opens the door to safe conversations.
  • Do not use language like a “successful” or “failed” suicide attempt. A successful suicide almost sounds like a celebration of something terrible, and a failed attempt sounds like the person did not do a good enough job. Neither phrases are constructive when talking about suicide.
  • Use language which does not illicit pity, but rather speaks in factual terms. Use the phrase, “He experiences suicide ideation,” rather than, “He suffers from suicide ideation.”

Some other best practice guidelines around talking about suicide include:

  • Do not talk about means when discussing suicide. Someone experiencing suicide ideation may identify with that person/means and can lead to copycat suicides or suicide clusters.
  • Do not make jokes about suicide. One example is an exchange on an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” when Penny reacts to a painting Amy commissioned of the two of them. When Penny sees it, she says something to the effect of, “That painting is so ugly the artist should kill themselves.” Jokes like this make light of others’ illness and desensitizes viewers to the nature of suicide and its aftermath for those left behind. It can also make someone feel they will not be taken seriously if they ask for help.

It is important to note language is always evolving. What may be appropriate today may change in the future.

Recognizing these guidelines for constructive dialogue about mental health conditions and suicide, I would like to challenge you to become an advocate for safe messaging. Here are some examples of poor messaging I have observed and how even one person can make a difference in how our society talks about suicide.

I have a friend who regularly stops with her family at a locally owned store. For years, she noticed an ice cream flavor called “Chocolate Suicide.” A few weeks ago, she wrote them about how much she loves going there with her family and was troubled by this flavor’s name. In her message, she emphasized that the thousands of travelers through their store all have stories, some include painful experiences with suicide, and even an ice cream flavor’s name can create unforeseen tears or heartache. Although my friend did not receive an email reply, she visited the store four days later and discovered the flavor name was changed to “Chocolate Overload.” She made a difference with one email by explaining how the flavor name stigmatizes the idea of suicide and can be unintentionally hurtful.

About a year ago, I was watching an episode of Northwest Justice, a television series filmed in Washington State which follows Department of Fish and Wildlife officers. On one episode, an officer was assisting a man experiencing suicide ideation. Unfortunately, he used outdated and stigmatizing language which could have increased the individual’s distress rather than deescalate the situation. I contacted the network which produced the show as well as a media official from the DFW. Although I never heard back from the network, I received an email from the DFW officer who agreed the officer (and others on the force) needed updated intervention training. Hearing back from him felt like success to me.

I have reached out to many other entities including Safe Schools (an online teacher training program) and Dear Abby. In many cases, I never heard back, but feel I am making a difference by helping to change the conversation.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I didn’t understand the impact of my words until I did. I hope you will consider being a warrior for change by rethinking how you talk about mental health conditions and suicide and by helping educate others. For those of you who have experienced the helpless feeling which comes from losing someone to suicide, helping to change the conversation around mental health conditions and suicide is a way to honor them.

Lead image provided by Kimberly A. Starr