Suicide is a painful and uncomfortable topic. It can’t be neutralised or softened. We digest an active desire to die or a disinterest in continuing to live uneasily, unsure of what to do for our friends or for ourselves. We often handle it poorly. We are often unkind. In our effort to distance ourselves from the source of our discomfort, we sometimes use language that pushes people away, even when we might want them closer.
Despite the success of mental health awareness campaigns, we continue to attach shame to mental health issues. An understanding of common symptoms is immensely helpful, but an arm's length approach to mental illness fails to address the way we internalise unwellness as weakness before we project these judgements onto others. The intersection of impact and intention is important; certain words invoke shame, whether we mean them to or not. Words have layered meanings, and sometimes we’re not aware of what we’re saying until we pull them apart. As shame resilience researcher Brene Brown writes, ‘When we attach judgement to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.’ If we would rather promote empathy and invite connection, we can choose to move away from stigmatising language. In doing so, we may find there are better ways to say what we mean.
To be clear, we don’t need to respond perfectly; expectations of perfection have a funny way of shutting down discussion. But we do need to get better at this.
Speaking of which, here are a few phrases that come with a great deal of emotional baggage.
Usage: “they committed suicide”
The word commit has a long and negative history with the word suicide. As outlined by the Australian Psychological Society, ‘commit’ evokes it’s legal past (as a criminal offence), it’s religious history (as a sin against God), and its association with institutions (being involuntarily ‘committed’). Of the many mental health issues that cause us discomfort, suicide (like psychosis), seems to linger on as a topic too shameful to be associated with. Although ‘committed suicide’ is a commonly used phrase, this does not mean it does no harm; its usage in recent history illustrates the ways we have chosen to isolate and punish those experiencing suicidal feelings. People who are contemplating suicide are not corrupt or contagious. If we would like to reject these associations, we can use language that is less burdened by judgement e.g. using suicide as a verb (“they suicided”) or phrasing it as a cause of death (“they died by suicide”) instead.
Usage: “Don’t do something stupid” and “You’re not going to do something stupid, are you?”
Calling someone stupid for experiencing acute emotional pain is unlikely to be comforting. If what we really mean is “are you feeling suicidal?”, we should ask directly, and with kindness. Research shows that asking (gently but directly) about suicidal feelings does not increase or cause suicidal ideation. Talking about suicide is understandably uncomfortable and may make us feel scared, but if we’re concerned about a person’s wellbeing, it’s worth the discomfort of asking. If the answer we hear is “yes”, we are not singularly responsible for providing them with support. That’s what mental health plans, services and resources are for. Connection with other people is one of the most important factors for overall wellbeing. Feeling understood and supported by friends and family matters a great deal. Being mindful of the language we use when we ask about a person's mental health makes access to that support possible.
Usage: “I can’t believe how selfish you’re being” and “They’re were selfish”.
If someone we know dies by suicide, it’s not uncommon to feel angry. When people leave us in this way, it hurts. Suicide often brings with it many unresolved issues, and sometimes we discredit the pain of others in order to avoid or elevate our own. It’s important to remember, that no matter how complicated our relationships may be, people who have chosen suicide (or are thinking about suicide), are not well. Suicidal thoughts are fuelled by disconnection and despair; when we feel a lack of meaningful purpose, belonging, and hope. For people experiencing suicidal ideation, these feelings often intersect with pre-existing mental health issues and/or negative life events. When a person acts selfishly they do so by not considering the feelings of others. People who have died by (or attempted) suicide, may have considered that their death will have a negative impact on those around them, whilst simultaneously viewing themselves as a burden. They may also have felt (or feel), that there will be no relief for them. ‘Selfish’ does not encompass the way our brains can deceive us into thinking that we don’t matter, or that the intensity of our pain is permanent.
If our relationship with a person who has died by suicide is complicated by trauma, neglect, abandonment or other hurts – we are not required to absolve them, or rewrite our experience for the comfort of others. But we should consider those who may be listening; being characterised as selfish is likely to alienate people working through similar issues. It’s ok to be angry. It’s normal to experience a variety of feelings. But acknowledging the pain of the person (and the people surrounding us) does not erase or change the past.
If you need to talk to someone about suicidal feelings or have lost someone to suicide, please call The Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467). For immediate help, please call 000.
For more information about rebated mental health plans, contact your GP. If you or your workplace would like to invest in mental health training (including first aid for suicidal behaviour), enquire with Mental Health First Aid about their course options.
If living outside of Australia, please seek out services in your country.