What to Avoid When Talking About Suicide

Don’t use stigmatizing phrases

Certain things that we say about a delicate subject, such as suicide, can have far reaching repercussions, even if unintended. It was not until recently that someone pointed out to me that I had wrongly been using the phrase “commit suicide” and I stopped to think what that suggested.

Think about all of the other times that you use “commit.” You probably came up with a series of phrases that portray the subject as a wrongdoer of some sort. It is important to remember that mental illness is not anyone’s fault, but rather something that we should work together to help alleviate. Try replacing this phrase with “die by suicide” instead.

Another major misstep people make when discussing suicide is to refer to an attempt as either successful or unsuccessful. Keep in mind that describing a suicide as “successful” suggests positive connotations around the loss of life. Suicidal behaviour should be classified as either a suicide or an attempted suicide, leaving out unintended, moralizing implications. Graphically detailing the method, means, or description of how a person died can also increase the risk of suicide for vulnerable individuals and so is best avoided.

Don’t imply blame

During the confusion in the wake of a suicide, it is understandable to start searching for answers. Yet, blaming someone, be it the victim or someone close to them, is unproductive.

With respect to the victim, recognize that he or she is not being “selfish,” but is likely struggling. Science has shown that people who die by suicide often have little control over their actions in the moments leading up to their death, with mental illness distorting their reality and leading them to make a decision that they ultimately may not have wished to make.

Those close to the victim will likely deal with feelings of survivor’s guilt. Therefore, while questions about whether they “noticed anything going on recently” might seem harmless, they may perpetuate self-doubt in those close to the victim.

Don’t minimize the loss

As much as you may want to lessen the blow and try and move past a tragic event, pushing someone to move on can prevent them from being able to address it on their own terms. Everyone handles grief in their own way and rushing that process or diminishing their emotions can only make it harder.

It is important that people are given the time and space to mourn and handle their grief. Try instead: shining a light on the happy times you had with the deceased and celebrating their life. It is important not to just remember them by their last act, but as the entirety of who they were.

How Communities Can Better Approach Suicide

It’s often said that ignoring or suppressing what we want to say only exacerbates the problem. That can also be true for suicide. It’s important that people feel free to discuss their struggles, to ask for help, and for all of us to work to destigmatize mental illness generally, and the topic of suicide specifically. No matter how difficult a conversation may seem, it is always a worthwhile one to have. With that being said, here are some things to keep in mind so that you can talk about suicide the right way.

Treat it for what it is — a health condition

The biggest inhibitor to a healthy conversation about suicide is the stigma that surrounds it. Mental illness has a long history of under-recognition, which has had a detrimental impact for those who struggle with it. Although we’re still far from the day when mental health conditions are treated in the same manner as their physical counterparts, we can start to make conscious decisions right now to talk about our mental health in the same way. This will at least be a step in the right direction.

Next time the conversation of mental illness or suicide comes up, think how you would phrase something if it was instead about someone who was suffering from or died because of a heart condition. Tailor your conversation accordingly.

Be open

Nobody is forcing you to share what you are not comfortable with, but if we were all a little more open about our own lives, it might make others feel more comfortable opening up as well. In my own experience, sharing my lows with others made them much more likely to start a dialogue about their own mental health.

While mental health issues are still taboo, this means sufferers feel like they are all alone, when in reality, that isn’t the case. In fact, one in four Australian’s struggle with a mental illness each year, but without the confidence to come forward, many suffer in silence.

Be direct

Finally, when you are talking about mental illness, it is important not to leave anything open to interpretation. If you think someone needs help, say something while you have the chance. There are endless resources that are equipped to handle crises. The key is to make sure they are utilized.