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“Many of the terms we use to describe suicide appear harmless at first, but many carry deeper negative connotations that contribute to the shame and silence surrounding suicide.”

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally, with more than 700,000 deaths by suicide reported each year.(1) In North America, 75% of all suicide deaths are men(2). In 2019, the US reported nearly three times more deaths by suicide than by homicide.(3) Yet, despite being a global health issue, suicide remains a topic we often avoid talking about. 

Suicide often goes unreported due to the fear that its mention will lead others to do the same. This is a valid concern, as it’s important to not sensationalize or share the details of how someone died by suicide. However, concealing the issue of suicide in public conversations can evoke a sense of shame for those people who have suicidal thoughts, which can serve as a barrier to them reaching out for help. Silence is therefore not the answer. Choosing more respectful language to talk about suicide, however, can show people that recovery is possible and encourage them to reach out for support.

Reframing how we talk about suicide

Suicide is not an act of selfishness:

Sadly, much of the inappropriate language surrounding suicide emerges from the view that suicide is “an act of selfishness”, dismissing the intense pain and sadness experienced by people who are troubled by suicidal thoughts. Depression can profoundly affect a person’s thinking. Those with suicidal thoughts often genuinely believe that their families and friends would be better off without them,(4) even though this is not the case. 

Thinking of suicide as selfish is like blaming someone for something they said or did while under intense pain or toture. Suicide should not be viewed as a selfish act, but rather as a reflection of the intensity of a person’s pain which distorted their thinking to the point that they saw death as the only way to escape the torment they felt inside.(5) 

Suicide can’t often be attributed to a single cause:

People also tend to look for specific reasons as to why a suicide occurred, often saying things like “he just lost his job”, or “his wife just passed away.” It’s natural for people to try to make sense of such a traumatic loss, but trying to pinpoint one specific reason for a person’s suicide death oversimplifies the issue and undermines the complexity of the person’s experiences.

Key phrases to avoid and what to say instead

Many of the terms we use to describe suicide appear harmless at first, but carry negative connotations that contribute to the shame and silence surrounding suicide.(6)

“Committed suicide” “Died by suicide”

  • The word “commit” carries criminal undertones and refers to a time when it was illegal to kill oneself, historically being comparable to other serious crimes like rape or murder.(6)
  • Avoiding the word “commit” helps others who want to reach out for support, but are too afraid because it feels illegal or sinful.
  • Language used to talk about suicide should not convey judgement or provoke shame.

“Lost their fight” or “Lost their battle” “Died by suicide” or “Fatal suicide attempt”

  • Terms like these project weakness or failure onto someone. How we speak about someone after they died by suicide should focus on empathisizing with a person’s pain, respecting the complexity of the illness they were suffering from, and honouring their life.
  • Experiences with mental illness should not be simplified to a “win” or a “loss”.

“Successful suicide” “Died by suicide” or “fatal sucide attempt”

  • Branding a suicide as “successful” implies that a fatal suicide attempt could be considered positive or even as some sort of accomplishment.(5)
  • This can also make people who attempt suicide – and fortunatley survive – feel like more of a failure, when in fact we are lucky they are still here.(6)

“Choose suicide” “Died by suicide”

  • When talking about suicide, words like “choose” imply we understand what the person was going through. “Choose” implies that their suicide was a decision based solely on conscious thought and contemplation. In reality, people who die by suicide often feel they have no choice at all, and that their intense and unrelenting emotional pain is only escapable by death. This, however, is not true. In fact, many people have been able to recover from the severe depths of depression, overcoming challenges they once thought were insurmountable.

“Killed himself” “Died by suicide”

  • Saying someone “killed themselves” conjures up impressions of murderous intent and a callous act toward oneself. This greatly over-simplifies a person’s experience of the pain associated with suicidal thoughts and just how much this pain can cloud a person’s thoughts about being able to free oneself from the pain.

“Suicide victim” or “Victim of suicide” “A person who died by suicide”

  • The word “victim” has many negative associations and can reduce and de-humanize the individual who died by suicide.(7) A person who died by suicide is not a victim of some act, but instead is someone who experienced unimaginable pain and, sadly, saw death as the only escape from such pain.

“Suicide epidemic” “Increased rates” or “Higher rates”

  • Though sometimes used more casually, the word, ‘epidemic’ usually refers to the spread of an infectious disease, but mental health issues are not infectious. ‘Epidemic’ can also sensationalize suicide, evoking public excitement (as a sort of “buzzword”), at the expense of accurately presenting information.(8) Talking about suicide should be about addressing the problem respectfully, and not about sparking fear, increasing feelings of inevitability, or implying that preventing suicide is beyond our help.(9)

Suicide shouldn’t be construed as a “cry for help”

  • By equating suicide with “a cry for help”, we dismiss the underlying issues that make suicidal thoughts, depression, and other mental disorders such difficult illnesses to manage. By perpetuating the faulty idea that suicide is motivated by attention seeking, it prevents people from reaching out for help, because they don’t want others to think “He’s being dramatic or only wants people’s attention.” We instead want to encourage anyone thinking about suicide to reach out without hesitation or fear of judgement.

It’s important to make sure we continue having conversations about suicide to help remove the stigma and misperceptions around the topic, and by adapting our words, we can better support those that are dealing with suicidal thoughts, as well as respectfully acknowledge those that have died by suicide. 

By reframing the way we talk about suicide, we make it easier for people who are thinking about suicide to reach out for help, for those who attempt suicide and survive to get on a new road to recovery, and to help console friends and family members who have lost someone they love.


References:

  1. World Health Organization. (June, 17, 2021). Suicide. WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide
  2. Whitley, R. (2021, January 28). Alarming numbers around men’s mental health indicate need for national response. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinion-men-mental-health-1.5871935
  3. National Institute of Medicine. (n.d.). Suicide. NIMH. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide
  4. Sommer-Rotenberg, D. (1998). Suicide and language. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 159(3), 239-240. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1229556/?tool=pmcentrez&report=abstract
  5. Silverman, M. (2006). The language of suicidology. Suicide & Life – Threatening Behaviour, 36(5), 519-532. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/suli.2006.36.5.519?casa_token=c8ovd4XajVIAAAAA:KttkVZPU17_-1nTVI8gsPSmmH7dsKcUBKP9CWdtONoPVmWG2Dwo0rIVqJzuNg_8_3tV-WcAy4v0a
  6. Olsen, R. (n.d.). Suicide and Language. Centre for Suicide Prevention. https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/suicideandlanguage/
  7. Government of Canada. (December 20, 2018). Language Matters: Safe Communication for Suicide Prevention. Government of Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/healthy-living/language-matters-safe-communication-suicide-prevention.html
  8. Mindframe. (n.d.). Language. Mindframe. https://mindframe.org.au/suicide/communicating-about-suicide/language
  9. The Center for Addiction and Mental Health. (n.d.). Words Matter. CAMH. https://www.camh.ca/-/media/files/words-matter-suicide-language-guide.pdf
Written by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Reviewed and approved by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk - Professor and Director of the Psychotherapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia.
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