The old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is wildly inaccurate. The way we use them can build someone up, or tear them down. We can be helpful or hurtful in the words we choose and the effect they have. The language of suicide is no different.
Helpful vs. Hurtful
Finish this sentence: He committed __________________. A crime? Murder? Adultery? Suicide. The phrase “committed suicide” carries with it stigma, accusation and wrongdoing. It can add to the shame and isolation people often feel when they are dealing with an already sensitive and emotion-filled subject.
Most of our vocabulary on the subject of suicide comes from a time when suicide was a crime, and if the person survived, they could be imprisoned. In Canada, it was only in 1972 that suicide was decriminalized. As Susan Beaton, Dr. Peter Forster and Dr. Myfanwy Maple describe in their journal article “Suicide and Language: Why We Shouldn’t Use the ‘C’ Word”: “Suicide is a cause of death. Do we ever say that someone ‘committed cancer’ or ‘committed heart failure’, even when they may have lived lifestyles that contributed to such diseases (for example, smoking or having a high fat diet)? Even suggesting this sounds ludicrous, and yet every day we see such examples in relation to suicide.”
Talking About Suicide
How we talk about suicide can determine how safe people feel sharing their experiences, struggles and asking for help when they need it. A ‘successful’ suicide is not a success: the person has lost their life. A ‘failed’ suicide attempt can add to the feelings of failure and shame that a person may already be feeling, and it’s not a failure; they have lived to see another day, and hopefully receive the support they need for another step forward.
In their article on suicide and language, Susan Beaton and her colleagues further describe appropriate vs. stigmatizing language:
Source: Susan Beaton et al. http://www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=5048
Use Your Words
How we talk about suicide is really important - it can be a matter of life and death. Anyone with thoughts of suicide needs a safe place where they can share their feelings, experiences, struggles and questions in a safe and non-judgemental environment. How we speak can encourage that safe space, or it can destroy it.
With healthy terminology, we can leave behind the negative language that has surrounded suicide for so long, and instead encourage open and sensitive conversation that can encourage people to share and seek help whenever they feel they need it, without the fear of judgement and stigma.