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How to Talk About Suicide the Right Way

I deal with suicide a lot in my writings. I’ve talked about people who have just attempted suicide, those left behind by suicide and the family and friends of those who have attempted suicide, among many other subjects. That’s because suicide is a subject that I think is very important. It’s critical to break down the walls of silence that keep people who have contemplated or attempted suicide at arm’s length from everyone else. Thinking about suicide or attempting suicide doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; it just means that you have sought a way out of an extraordinary amount of pain that wasn’t the best way.

But the way in which suicide is written about matters because of a phenomenon known as suicide contagion. This is the act of copycat suicides and believe it or not, it is a real problem. The way a suicide is reported in the media actually affects the number of people who attempt suicide.

So if you plan on talking about suicide – and I encourage you to do so – think about these guidelines on how to do it.

What Not to Say About Suicide

The number one thing that people involved in suicide prevention seem to object to is the term “committed suicide.” While I know this is a common term and we have all used it (myself included), suicide prevention organizations believe it puts suicide into a positive light in that suicide was an act that was accomplished – a goal of some sort. Or, perhaps, puts it in the light of a crime such as, Joe committed robbery. Of course, suicide is neither a goal to be accomplished nor a crime. Instead of saying “committed suicide” or “successful suicide” say, “died by suicide.”

Learn what to say about suicide and what not to say about suicideOther things not to say about suicide:

  • Do not go into too much detail about the suicide attempt itself
  • Do not post detailed pictures of a suicide attempt or a suicide attempt location
  • Do not glorify or romanticize suicide
  • Do not portray suicides as heroic
  • Do not say that suicide is an end to pain (people need to be alive to feel relief from pain)
  • Do not use the term “failed suicide,” instead say “suicide attempt”
  • Do not use the term “epidemic” in suicide stories, instead say that rates are “rising” or “falling”

What to Say About Suicide

I would say there are several critical things to tell people about suicide but the number one thing is to tell them how to get help. It’s critical to say that feeling suicidal requires help and that the person must reach out. If you don’t know what numbers to use, go to Suicide.org for more information (or Google suicide hotline and your country).

Also say:

  • Suicide is often related to untreated depression – but depression is treatable and so are suicidal feelings
  • There is hope – suicidal feelings will pass
  • People feeling suicidal are not alone – people are there to help

What Do I Think About These Guidelines?

Now, the truth is, I think some of these things are good ideas and I think some of them are just guesses at what might help people at risk of suicide. I’m certain I’ve committed most of the sins in this article at one time or another.

Nevertheless, these guidelines put the emphasis on thinking about respectful and careful suicide reporting and preventing future suicides, and that is something we all need to consider.

See Suicide.org’s full list of recommendations on suicide reporting.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

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15 Responses to How to Talk About Suicide the Right Way

  1. Julia says:

    Amen to that. I really think the mental health system is in definite part responsible for the hush-hush regarding suicide. For example, they ask if you’ve ever had or have recently experienced any thoughts to hurt yourself or end your life. Who HASN’T had “thoughts” at some point in time? Mental illness totally aside, I think most have experienced the thought at least at once in their lives.

    Another example, in support groups facilitated by mental health professionals to-be (not group therapy), don’t mention the suicidal thoughts that have permeated your week, either specifically or generally. I figured if there were to be a safe place to talk about it, it would be there. But it’s not, because they’re more concerned with liability than they are anything else.

    Remember that thoughts are not the same as feelings, and that neither thoughts nor feelings are the same as action. However, both feelings and thoughts can and do influence action. Feelings also have a direct connection to thoughts, and vice versa as well. (This is where CBT finds its premise).

    I may be wrong here to generalize, but just from my own experience, those who act seriously on their feelings of desperation usually wind up as a “suicide attempt” with very negative consequences to the body and no relief to the mind and spirit whatsoever. Conversely, those who deal a lot with the thoughts and rationales (and maybe know they would never act on the strength of a feeling) have a concrete plan as to how and maybe when. In cases like this, it almost always ends in the actual suicide itself.

    Of course ANY situation is a call for help. Another great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Here’s their website (links to chat): http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx

  2. Legina says:

    Great article. Sharing

  3. judy says:

    Feel that the article was good. guilty of some of the “nots” but feel more empowered now because I reached out and got help. but most of my help came from within myself and my intense love for my family. I was able to get the strength I needed not to complete the act. don’t judge people who have these thoughts or put them down. treat everyone with kindness

  4. judy says:

    Suicide is a serious thing. I never talk about attempting or thinking about suicide. Who the heck actually post pictures of an attempted suicide? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

    My experience has always been that it is a personal thing. If it were to happen, one would simply never know about it. But fortunately/ unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet because a) either the means in which to do it wasn’t available b) too exhaust

  5. judy says:

    b) too exhausted and fatigued to actually do it. I say fortunately/unfortunately because it really depends on where my perspective is at that moment.

    I agree with the other judy above. Treat everyone with kindness. You really never know.

  6. Paul Winkler says:

    Thanks for the article. I don’t agree with some of the “don’ts” because I advocate talking about suicide as much as possible. As far as I’m concerned, there is just too much “sweeping under the carpet” of deaths by suicide, and anything to bring the subject into the light is a good thing. I am greatly encouraged by public figures these days admitting they have considered suicide. We need to talk about it more.

  7. Trisha says:

    This will not be a popular comment, and I sincerely hope that it does not hurt or offend. I But I feel very strongly on this subject, and I want my voice to be heard.

    To quote Julia:
    “I may be wrong here to generalize, but just from my own experience, those who act seriously on their feelings of desperation usually wind up as a “suicide attempt” with very negative consequences to the body and no relief to the mind and spirit whatsoever. Conversely, those who deal a lot with the thoughts and rationales (and maybe know they would never act on the strength of a feeling) have a concrete plan as to how and maybe when. In cases like this, it almost always ends in the actual suicide itself.”

    I agree 100% with Julia. And because I believe that, it bothers me a little that even this article lends such negativity to the idea of suicide. As one who keeps a concrete plan in the back of her mind for the day when she simply cannot keep going, I resent that it is next to impossible for me to look up any kind of helpful information on the subject. I resent that everything to be read basically tells me that I’m awful for even considering it, that I’m selfish, that I need help, that living with unbearable and un-fixable mental and/or physical pain is healthier and better than choosing to end that pain (because yes, it is an end, whether you feel it or not), that whether to sustain or end my own life is not my own choice, but rather the choice of the sensibilities of the society in which I live.

    I value life. I would never take the life of another. I value my own life. I would never end it on a whim. But at the point where I can no longer find a reason to fight, I should have resources – not to “help” me keep going, but to help me stop.

    These are the things I wish people would talk about. Yes, please talk about prevention and counseling and medication and therapies and every other resource available to those who do want to try to live. But someone please speak up for those who have reached the limits of their ability to keep making that choice.

    And for goodness sake, PLEASE don’t tell someone they are selfish for considering suicide. (This is not directed toward anyone here. It’s just that this is the most frequent reason I’ve read/heard for why someone shouldn’t do it, and it drives me crazy) If you had pneumonia, could I call you selfish for taking medication just because I would miss the sound of your cough when you get well? When a person can walk around in my skin, in the hell of my mind, carrying whatever pain I carry, only then can they have any right to ask me to stay alive for their sake.

    On that note…one positive, constructive thing I would like to add is that if you do know someone who is contemplating suicide, instead of telling them that they are selfish and that you want them to stay around for you, help them find things that make their life worth trying to hold onto for themselves, since they are the one who actually has to live it. For me, when things are dark, I try to remember that things will not always be this way and to look forward to what I can do when the darkness passes. Boxing lessons, rock climbing, a new location, a new degree, whatever. From your nice, comfy spot on the ark, instead of yelling down to tell your friend to keep treading water in the cold, deep ocean, just because you would miss them if they chose to give up and drown, point out the driftwood around them and encourage them to make a raft of their own choosing and to hang onto it for dear life…for their own dear life. And if they choose to stop treading and choking on the waves, just cry with them, let them know you love them, and let them go.

  8. Julia says:

    Trisha,

    Your last half of your last paragraph is beautiful the way you’ve written it.
    “From your nice, comfy spot on the ark, instead of yelling down to tell your friend to keep treading water in the cold, deep ocean, just because you would miss them if they chose to give up and drown, point out the driftwood around them and encourage them to make a raft of their own choosing and to hang onto it for dear life…for their own dear life. And if they choose to stop treading and choking on the waves, just cry with them, let them know you love them, and let them go.”

    That’s the hard part, letting anybody go. I have a plan, but I don’t actually desire suicide by any means. I do desire death quite often, even when I’m not in a mixed state, but it’s different. I don’t know. Does the person make the decision just because they’re exhausted? I wouldn’t act on the strength of any one feeling, including exhaustion.

    To add to your beautiful parallel:
    Better yet, if you can, get down to a pier closeby and help them to make that raft by directing the pieces of driftwood they would like toward them. And stay close, waiting for those pieces. Pray that your friend will have enough strength to put those pieces together, hold on to them, until they can drift toward you on the pier. Then you take them into your arms, warm them as best you can, and just sit together.

    And if your friend can’t build because they’re too weak, do you go into the ice cold ocean yourself, out to them? To physically help them see the driftwood and build the raft? But ultimately, only the person can save him/herself.

  9. Courtney says:

    I’m the second person to quote Julia here…sorry:

    “I may be wrong here to generalize, but just from my own experience, those who act seriously on their feelings of desperation usually wind up as a “suicide attempt” with very negative consequences to the body and no relief to the mind and spirit whatsoever. Conversely, those who deal a lot with the thoughts and rationales (and maybe know they would never act on the strength of a feeling) have a concrete plan as to how and maybe when. In cases like this, it almost always ends in the actual suicide itself.”

    I’m really glad you posted this…I’m a concrete plan-keeper, and I always thought I was somehow less sick than other bipolars (I’ve been in support groups where someone says “I’ve had X number of attempts” and then someone chimes in with “I’ve had [more than X] suicide attempts” like it’s some kind of sick contest. I’ve never attempted and felt like maybe therefore I was less mentally ill than others. My particular plan is thorough and essentially guaranteed to work, and now that I’ve read this (and seen people agree), it makes me realize maybe I should stop discounting myself so much.

  10. Kristy says:

    I guess I break some of the rules when I talk about suicide.
    I only talk about my experiences but I do not glorify it. I say how much I am glad I am
    still here. I talk about how my brain was clouded and I could not see a way out at the time. I think it’s really important to be honest with our peers. I talk about creating a support network and how to get help.
    I do not usually mention my partners experience because that is his story, however I do say being a Carer is harder then I knew.
    What makes peers/consumers unique is knowing what a non-linear recovery journey is like and that we hopefully don’t freak out like professionals can when talking about these issues.

  11. Marlene says:

    I am feeling very depressed and contemplated with suicide. I have tried to get help an my doctor has increased my medication.

  12. Hi Marlene,

    I’m very sorry to hear you are feeling so desperate right now. I recommend you call one of these hotlines and see what other resources are available to you: http://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-referral-resources/

    - Natasha Tracy

  13. Robin says:

    As a suicidal person who doesn’t have a plan, I just just don’t know what to do or help my 18-year-old niece who has made 3 attempts in the past 3 months! She hoards her meds and then takes them all at once. Her older sister, who made several attempts when she was about that age, was managing her sister’s meds only to have D do the hoarding twice in the past month. She is hysterical. My sister is finally stepping in and taking over. My sister made several attempts plus had severe anorexia. Four of us have been hospitalized now. How do suicidal people help other suicidal people when we’re pretty damaged ourselves?

  14. Gina says:

    I know with the my suicide attempts (and yes that is plural), I would hate when someone would say I failed. I would just one more thing I couldn’t do. I couldn’t even die. Or when they would say, you wouldn’t have failed if you really wanted to die. (yes, I have had people actually say that to me) I like the term ‘suicide attempt’, I don’t feel ashamed of something I could make happen. And by the way, I’m really glad I lived to tell about it. So can you!

  15. Lilah says:

    Robin I would like to say that from my experience as being a survivor of suicide loss as well as having attempted many times myself and being a mental health caregiver as hard as it may be sometimes we have to let go and I don’t mean that as a bad thing or negative thing. Reality is we all make our own choices and if we don’t fully care for ourselves and care for ourselves first then we aren’t going to be helpful to anyone not even those we love and care about. However the main thing I have learned is to sit down shut up and just listen. Remember while you are listening realize you don’t want to be thinking of solutions for the person. You are listening for any signs of hope which may simply be how much they love their animal companion etc. Then go from their and if you get stuck their is no shame in asking a friend or professional for help.

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