Published: 19:26, March 15, 2024 | Updated: 19:26, March 15, 2024
Why we need to change the way we talk about suicide
By Sadie Kaye

Suicide. Just reading or writing the word is uncomfortable for most people. That’s because words have power. And suicide can feel like a grenade. Language plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions and understanding of the world around us. It serves as a powerful tool for communication and can influence our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. In the case of sensitive and complex topics like suicide, the lexicon we use to discuss it can have a profound impact on both individuals and society as a whole. Changing the lexicon on suicide can contribute to fostering empathy, promoting mental health awareness, and preventing stigma. 

The words we choose to describe suicide can significantly impact how we perceive and empathize with individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide. Using stigmatizing or judgmental language can perpetuate myths and stereotypes, and contribute to the sense of isolation and shame felt by those affected. 

Despite the positive progress we have made, the stigma associated with mental illness still exists. The way we talk about mental illness and the things we express publicly through media, social media, in our homes and in our workplaces can make a profound difference. By changing the lexicon to one that is compassionate, understanding, and non-judgmental, we can create an environment that fosters and encourages empathy and support. This shift in language can help vulnerable individuals feel more comfortable seeking help, knowing that they will be met with understanding and compassion. 

So how should we address it and most importantly what are the key words and phrases to avoid? 

Using phrases that romanticize or sensationalize suicide can be triggering and harmful. By adopting a more informed and responsible lexicon, we can promote mental health awareness and encourage open conversations about suicide prevention. This includes using terms that emphasize mental health as a continuum and recognizing suicide as a complex issue with underlying factors such as mental illness, social isolation, or environmental stressors. A language shift can contribute to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and foster an environment of support and understanding promoting mental health awareness. 

If somebody you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please listen. Listen now. Listen with pain. Listen with doubt. But listen

It is essential to emphasize that suicide is not a result of weakness or selfishness. Stigma surrounding suicide can be a significant barrier to seeking help and accessing appropriate and available support. Negative or derogatory language perpetuates this stigma and can deter individuals from reaching out or sharing their experiences. A subtle language shift can contribute to reducing shame and encouraging individuals to seek help without fear of judgment or discrimination. By changing the lexicon, we can challenge these harmful perceptions and replace them with words and phrases that promote empathy, understanding, and foster support. 

By utilizing words that focus on hope, resilience and recovery, we can encourage individuals to seek help and support, as well as promoting the idea that recovery is possible. Few people do not recover at all from mental health issues. A changed lexicon on suicide can also have a positive impact on prevention efforts. When we use language that is accurate, sensitive, and compassionate, we can effectively communicate the importance of suicide prevention strategies and resources. Additionally, a changed lexicon can provide a foundation for effective public health campaigns, educational programs, and policy initiatives aimed at suicide prevention. 

When discussing suicide, it is important to avoid certain terms or phrases that can be stigmatizing, sensationalizing, or harmful to individuals who are vulnerable or have been affected by suicide. In particular, we should avoid talking about suicide attempts in terms of being “successful” or “failed”. These terms imply that suicide is a goal to be achieved or failed at, like passing your driving test or getting picked for the school rugby team. Have we really spent the past few decades measuring life as failure and death as success? No wonder we haven’t made as much progress as we’d like. 

“Committing suicide” carries a connotation of a criminal act (he “committed a felony”, she “committed an atrocity”), which can further stigmatize individuals who die by suicide. Instead of talking about suicide in terms of success and failure, try to use neutral terms such as “died by suicide” or “survived suicide”. Likewise, “cry for help” suggests that individuals who express suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm are merely doing it to seek attention or manipulate others. In my own flirtations with suicidal ideation and the shared experiences of others in my support group and community, this is rarely, if ever, the case. It is essential to take all expressions of distress seriously and provide appropriate support. Using phrases like “call for support” or “expression of pain” are more empathetic and understanding. 

One of the common stereotypes around mental health is the idea of a moral failing. These stereotypes and the sense of blame they place on a person with mental illness tend to cast people in a category of “others” that few people want to claim as their identity. Judgmental terms such as “selfish” or “cowardly” assign blame to individuals who die by suicide and fail to acknowledge the underlying mental health struggles they may have faced. It is crucial to avoid such stigmatizing language and instead focus on promoting empathy, understanding, and support. 

Certain ways of talking about mental illness can alienate members of the community, sensationalize the issue and contribute to stigma and discrimination. Stigma arises when two key ingredients are present: a negative stereotype about a group of people or a condition, and actions people take to distance themselves from being associated with that group or condition. Stigma is a kind of social distancing that happens when we perceive a group as “other” and “not like us”. 

While it is important to address the public health aspect of suicide, using sensationalist terms such as “epidemic” liken suicide to contagious diseases and can also perpetuate fear and stigma. Suicide is a complex public health issue that requires awareness, prevention efforts and support, so let’s try to frame it like that. Clickbait headlines that promote graphic or sensationalized descriptions just widen the gap between “them” and “us”. Do we really need to add more drama to suicide? Detailed descriptions of suicide methods or graphic accounts can also be highly triggering and potentially harmful, especially to young and vulnerable individuals. Avoid sharing explicit details and instead focus on promoting understanding, empathy, and resources for help. 

While language is constantly evolving, and the recommendations I make for discussing suicide may change, it’s important to stay informed about current guidelines. Just like listening helps anyone having suicidal thoughts, listening to the preferences and experiences of individuals affected by suicide can help shape a more compassionate and responsible lexicon. 

There is no avoiding the fact that suicide, and even the broader topic of death, are difficult subjects for a lot of people. But there are misconceptions that contribute to these feelings: mainly the idea that talking about suicide will cause a person to kill him- or herself (or give them the idea). Research has shown this to not be true. In fact, asking someone if they are having suicidal thoughts is far more likely to save a life. 

By choosing our words carefully and shifting towards a language that is compassionate, non-judgmental, and supportive, we can contribute to a society that is better equipped to address the complex issue of suicide and provide support for those affected. It is through this linguistic transformation that we can create a culture of understanding, empathy and hope for those who are struggling, and ultimately save lives. 

If you yourself are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please talk. Start talking now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice quaking. But start. Start talking. Talking is not doing nothing. Talking is doing. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are. And with what you have. Start at the end. Or at the beginning. Or in the middle. Just… start. 

If somebody you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please listen. Listen now. Listen with pain. Listen with doubt. But listen. Listen with hands shaking. Listen with heart quaking. But listen. Stop talking and listen. Listening is not doing nothing. Listening is doing. Who knows if two souls ever meet “at the right time”. But, as you’re both here, try your best to listen without judgement. Listen where you are. And with all that you have in your heart. Listen at the end. Or at the beginning. Or in the middle. Just… start.

The author is the founder of support group Bipolar Hong Kong and an ambassador for Mind HK. She has made two documentaries and a series of podcasts about mental health for RTHK Radio 3 and her mental health platform Mental Ideas.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.