Talking about suicide is tough. It’s also incredibly important. But, what’s even more important is how we talk about it
We’ve come such a long way with the way that mental health is spoken about and reported on in the UK. But there is always room for improvement, and there’s one topic of conversation in particular where our language can often be problematic – suicide.
It is often said that suicide is the last stigma of mental health and, although the way to remove stigma is by talking, with a topic as sensitive as suicide, there needs to be a balance.
The problem is, the less we talk about suicide, the more we alienate people experiencing crisis and the more likely they are to act on those thoughts. Yet, the more we get the conversation wrong – by talking about suicide insensitively or without being properly informed – we further add to the shame and stigma that already exists.
So, we need to get the conversation right. By doing this, we can not only help people who might be experiencing suicidal thoughts, but we can support those that have been bereaved by suicide or are dealing with the consequences of a suicide attempt. And the more we’re able to talk about it, the easier it will become.
At Happiful, we know that language is incredibly powerful. Here, we share our knowledge on how to talk about suicide sensitively.
You don’t have to be an expert
To set the tone for this guide, there isn’t a list of phrases you can memorise, or a tick-list to complete to talk sensitively about suicide. Nor is it about being the most qualified person to speak on the subject. It’s about showing how much you care; being compassionate, and relating to others on a basic, human level.
Part of showing compassion is a willingness to learn. This is incredibly important, according to Lucia Capobianco, senior learning and development officer at Samaritans.
“Samaritans has more than 65 years of expertise when it comes to listening, but speak to any Samaritans volunteer and they will tell you that they are not an expert in any way, shape, or form. In fact, our founder, Chad Varah, once described Samaritans volunteers as ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’.
“One of these extraordinary things is what we describe as ‘active listening’. It’s about using techniques that give people breathing space and time to say what they want to, without jumping in with advice.”
So, perhaps the first step in talking about suicide sensitively is being a sensitive listener – and that is something we can all work on.
Get the terminology right
Although it feels ingrained in the way we talk about suicide, refrain from using phrases like ‘commit suicide’ or ‘successful suicide’. The term ‘commit’ suggests criminality and blame, which is not the case; suicide has not been a criminal act in the UK since 1961. And if someone thinks of something as sinful, irreligious or criminal, they’re less likely to talk about it.
Alternatives include: ‘Died by suicide’, ‘completed suicide’ or ‘took/ended their own life’.
Equally, when people refer to a “successful” or “failed” suicide attempt, this again is problematic. Success usually refers to something positive, failure something negative. However, from a suicide prevention perspective, when an attempt does not result in a death, that should be considered the best outcome.
Alternatives include: ‘Survived a suicide attempt’ or ‘nonfatal suicide attempt’.
Additionally, when referring to a person who has reached crisis point, person-first language is preferred. For instance, instead of asking someone “Are you suicidal?”, it is better to use language that separates them from the illness: “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” or “Are you experiencing suicidal feelings?”. This can help to reiterate that they are more than their mental illness and that ending their life is not the only option.
By choosing to use sensitive terminology, you’re signalling yourself as someone safe to talk to
It might feel unnatural to use these terms at first but, by choosing to use sensitive terminology, you’re signalling yourself as an ally; you are someone safe to talk to. And, because there is still a long way to make terminology like this the norm, you are likely to come across people who question your choice of wording. This presents itself as a great opportunity to share knowledge and open the conversation up with others.
Be mindful when asking questions
As humans, we’re inquisitive. When something happens, particularly something sad or traumatic, it can feel natural to want to understand how or why it happened. But this should not apply to suicide. For the loved ones bereaved by suicide, it is an incredibly painful time.
In the words of mental health advocate and journalist Poorna Bell: “My experience is that you don’t ask how the person specifically died, especially if it is a suicide. That information has to be volunteered, because you are asking someone to sit in their darkest moment of pain.”
When someone dies by suicide, it is a tragedy – and it makes it no more or less tragic to know the method in which they used to take their own life. Nor will it benefit us to know the reason. Problematically, when talking about suicide, the media is fond of trying to pin it on a single cause. But in reality, there is not typically one single reason why someone dies by suicide – it is incredibly complex, resulting from many difficult experiences over the course of a person’s lifetime.
So please, if you ever think about asking the ‘how’ or ‘why’, contemplate the repercussions of those questions.
Try not to be sensationalist
There are guidelines in place which stipulate how suicide can be portrayed in the media. These efforts reduce the risk of irresponsible reporting on suicide, but there are still many cases where suicide is reported on sensationally.
If you read or hear about a case of suicide, refrain from speculating, particularly with regards to the method. As we know, many of us can be dealing with issues that others are not aware of. Talking sensationally about methods can be triggering for people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or know someone who has completed suicide.
There is not typically one single reason why someone dies by suicide – it is much more complex than that
Equally, the same is true for discussing the reasons that may have led someone to take their own life. We need to be careful not to over-simplify – avoid suggesting that a single incident, such as a relationship breakdown, loss of a job, or bereavement, was the cause. As we know, suicide is a lot more complex than that.
Don’t avoid the subject
It can be difficult to know how to help someone who is experiencing suicidal feelings. As much as you want to stop them from feeling the way they do, you probably know that their unhappiness is deep and complex. You might be worried about the potential impact your interference could have – will it drive them further into themselves? Will talking about it trigger an attempt?
When dealing with a person who might be having suicidal thoughts, try your best to withhold your own emotions. As angry, shocked, hurt and scared you might be, try to focus on doing the following:
- Show you care
- Give them hope
If you know someone who might be feeling suicidal, you can find information on what to do, what to say and how to help them on Counselling Directory. Alternatively, the Samaritans have some really helpful advice on how to have a difficult conversation. Take a look at their website for guidance on how to help someone you're worried about open up about their feelings.
If someone has made a suicide attempt, be brave
When a loved one has attempted to take their own life, this again can feel like a difficult conversation to have. But what you say to them now is more important than any conversation you’ve ever had with them.
Psychotherapist Joshua Miles offers some words of encouragement: “It might seem difficult to provide support for someone after their attempted suicide and it can feel as though there are no words that will match the sadness of the situation. On top of this, you will be feeling overwhelmed, shocked and emotional yourself.
“However, it is possible to approach the subject and both support your loved one, as well as manage the moment yourself. Creating a safe space where your loved one knows that they are cared for, supported and loved will make a huge difference. Asking open-ended questions can help to bring about communication.”
Below are some ways you can try to begin a conversation about an attempted suicide:
- “I am so sorry that you have been feeling so low, but I am glad that you are still here.”
- “I am here for you now, and remember that I am always here if you ever need to talk.”
- “I would like to help you, so please tell me how I can best do that. If that means just sitting here, that’s alright too.”
More than anything, be kind
Every suicide is a tragedy and we should reflect that in the language we use to talk about it. We might not get it right every single time, but part of being a mental health advocate is trying to get it right – learning from others, sharing knowledge and, most of all, being kind and supportive.
In using sensitive language to talk about suicide, you can help to break the stigma surrounding suicide so that this way of talking about it becomes the norm.
Original article published: 7 October 2019. Updated 24 March 2020.
Where to get help
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts and need to talk to someone:
If you are in crisis and are concerned for your own, or someone else’s safety, call 999 or go to A&E as soon as possible.
To talk to someone immediately, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 or email email@example.com. The Samaritans are available 24/7 and are completely anonymous. If you need to talk, they are there to listen.
If you’re worried about a loved one:
- How to help someone who is suicidal
- What should I do if a friend mentions suicide?
- Talking to children and teens about celebrity suicide
If you’re in the media or interested in writing about suicide:
- The Mental Health Media Charter
- Samaritans Media Guidelines
- #TalkingSuicide - Responsible Reporting Can Help Prevent Suicides