The Tricky Terminology of Suicide Prevention

How can we responsibly discuss suicide in the public sphere? What role do I have in maintaining measured discourse about my own experiences attempting suicide? Could talking and writing about suicide lead someone to try ending their life? Does writing bluntly about death by one’s own hand help or harm the cause of suicide prevention?

…but words will never hurt me. Turns out they can, and they do. Listen to my description of an emotional challenge that can ease a person out of destructive thoughts against themselves.

These questions loom large in my mind because I know how powerful words are. They cut deeper than any knife. They wound more grievously than any accident. Words remain with us; we feel the pain long after we first heard them. I know that every person reading this post can recall a mean nickname or a sharp rebuke that, when you think back you immediately feel the shame, the disgust, and the rising anger. Not as a pale shadow of how you felt, but as intensely as you remembered those feelings.

Words have lasting effects on our psyche, our feelings of self-worth, and our image of how other’s perceive us. Sadly, ignorance abounds. People know how visceral words can feel, but they pull out the “could be worse” and “get tough” tropes.

  • “Why would you consider killing yourself when other people have it so much worse off?”

    • This heaps a dollop of shame onto the hurting person, minimizing the likelihood that they will seek help in the future.

  • “Well, toughen up because life is hard.”

    • Do those that say “toughen up” provide any insight into how one can perform that action? No, they repeat what was said to them as if those two words will outweigh the thousands of terrible words cascading through the mind of someone considering suicide.

There are some phrases we need to remove from our vocabulary:

  • Committed suicide.

  • Killed herself.

  • Took the easy way out.

  • Successfully hung himself.

Gordon, this cannot be! Advocating censorship? Well, yes. I am.

Blunt language is a weapon that risks collateral damage. In the same way that I limit my vocabulary when I go to the office or put on stripes to referee, I am learning to limit how I write and speak about suicide because I wish to cause no additional harm.

I follow two rules when I speak and write about suicide:

  1. Lessen anguish.

  2. Boost knowledge.

If the words I use to increase knowledge also increase anguish, then I ruthlessly edit my original copy and try again.

The first rule comes from my reading of Dr. Thomas Joiner, Why People Die By Suicide, who wrote:

“The basic rule then is this: We can lessen the chance that people will enact their lethality if we lessen their anguish.”

The second rule comes from my journey through suicide. I took an unusual path while in the midst of suicidal thought: I read every book and research paper about suicide that I could find. That anecdote by itself should be enough to refute the idiotic idea that learning about suicide will lead someone to die by their volition.*

*Note - I still choose blunt language when going up against ignorance.

The floodgates have opened on discussing suicide. Part of the deluge we now experience is that for most of recorded human history suicide was not a topic for conversation in the public sphere. With lives lost every day, the conversations we raise in our own ways are critical in giving a voice to those who may not yet know how to articulate their feelings.