Suicide is a real problem, but it’s a problem that is preventable. Suicide generally occurs when feelings and thoughts like hopelessness and helplessness are stronger than the person’s resources, coping skills, and belief that their life is worth living. As a therapist, our job is to help people gain resources and skills as well as help them learn how to dream about the future. Even if you aren’t a therapist, talking about suicide with trauma-informed language, knowing warning signs, and having resources like hotlines can help save someone’s life. In this blog we will focus on trauma-informed language.
Contrary to common beliefs, talking about suicide does not result in more suicides: it does the opposite. How we talk about suicide is extremely important. For example, research shows that the media can influence rates by the way they report on suicide. Evidence suggests that when the media tells stories of people positively coping in suicidal moments, more suicides can be prevented. Let’s talk about a few ways we can use trauma-informed language to talk about suicide in order to use non-stigmatizing language and create a safe space to discuss suicide and encourage people to seek help.
As stated above, language matters. How should we refer to suicide as aa cause of death? The most common terms are “committed suicide” or “completed suicide.” In society, we typically refer to crimes as having been “committed.” Using this term can imply or lead to the criminalization of people who have died by suicide. To create a language of safety, refrain from using the term “completed.”
“Completed” can imply that an act has been accomplished or successful, often sending the message that suicide is a talk to be accomplished. In order to imply the facts around the cause of death and keep a neutral language when discussing a death by suicide, it is correct to say that that person has “died by suicide.”
Along with “committed” and “completed,” “successful” or “unsuccessful” are terms to stay clear of. Like the above terms, this language also assumes that suicide is something to be accomplished (either successful or not). It frames a very tragic outcome as an achievement or something positive. In this case, use only “suicide attempt.” It’s important to focus on providing factual and direct language that is free of judgement of the person or the situation.
When referring to someone who is facing suicidal thoughts it’s important to stay away from saying “(Name) is suicidal.” This is true for all diagnoses, conditions, and illnesses. We don’t want to define someone by their experience with suicide (or diagnosis or illness or condition). They are more than their suicidal thoughts. By saying “(Name) is suicidal,” we put the condition before the person and reduce someone’s identity to their diagnosis. People-first language shows respect for the individual, reinforcing the fact that their condition does not define them. Examples of this includes, “he is facing suicide,” “she is thinking of suicide,” and “they are experiencing suicidal thoughts.”
It can be difficult to change the way we speak about suicide after hearing stigmatizing and unsafe language as the norm. We may find ourselves using it on accident– and that’s okay. What’s important is to catch ourselves using problematic language about suicide and mental health and correct ourselves out loud. This can create a positive learning experience for everyone involved. Also, it may give you the chance to explain why certain terms are harmful.