The Power of Language in Discussing Suicide

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The language we use to discuss suicide is important as it conveys implicit and explicit messages.  It shapes our understanding of it and how we engage in conversation about it.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is defined as a death caused by self-directed, injurious behavior with the intent to die as a result of the behavior.  A suicide attempt is a non-fatal, self-directed potentially injurious behavior with intent to die as a result of the behavior.  A suicide attempt might not result in injury.  Finally, suicidal ideation refers to thinking about, considering, or planning suicide.     


Here are 6 reasons why how we discuss suicide matters: 


Reduces Stigma: The language we use can either reinforce stigma or help reduce it.  Stigmatizing language can deter individuals from seeking help or discussing their struggles openly.  For example, “committed suicide” implies that suicide is a crime.  Suicide is not a crime that one commits, but rather a tragic outcome as a result of converging risk factors.  Using empathetic and non-judgmental language, like “died by suicide” instead, can create a more supportive environment.  


Encourages Communication: Language that is sensitive and compassionate can encourage individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to open up and seek assistance.  Creating a safe space for dialogue is crucial for intervention and support.  


Prevents Contagion:  Contagion refers to the process whereby one suicide or suicidal behavior within a school, community, or geographical region increases the likelihood that others may attempt or die by suicide.  Certain phrases or sensationalized language inadvertently contributes to the contagion effect, where discussions of suicide lead to an increased risk in suicidal behavior.  Responsible language can help mitigate this risk. 


Promotes Awareness and Education:  Clear and factual language can help educate the public about the warning signs, risk factors, and available resources for suicide prevention.  This knowledge is essential for early intervention. 


espect for Survivors: Using respectful language when discussing those who have died by suicide shows empathy for survivors, such as family and friends.  It acknowledges the complexity of mental health issues. 


Language is powerful.  It plays a vital role in shaping our attitudes, behaviors, and responses to suicide.  Using respectful, non-stigmatizing, and empathetic language can contribute to a more supportive and effective approach to suicide prevention and mental health support.  For guidelines on the language of suicide, visit

Disclaimer: The above article is informational only and not a replacement for therapy or medical advice. You are encouraged to make decisions for your mental health in consultation with a licensed mental health professional.

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