The ‘language’ surrounding suicide has changed over the past two decades. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of these changes in how we talk about suicide. We know words have the power to heal, but they also have the power to do harm. Words, whether they are unintentional or not, can bring out stigma and our attitudes on how we feel about suicide. These attitudes and words can lead those who are having thoughts on suicide to not get the help that they desperately need. These changes have been done to reduce the stigma that suicide can cause. We strongly urge that if you are helping others and involved in suicide prevention to use the below ‘suicide language’.
The biggest change relates to how to refer to suicide as a cause of death. In the past, terms such as “committed suicide” or “completed suicide” have been widely used and are continuing to be used today. The words, “commit/committed” may imply that an act is criminal or may be looked at as a mortal sin in many religions. Suicide at one point was considered a crime in communities across our country but now is considered outdated and irrelevant. The use of the word “completed” can imply that an act has been accomplished or successful, often sending the message that suicide is a task to be accomplished. These words are not considered helpful when discussing suicide.
According to Sally Spencer-Thomas, Ph.D., one of the premier psychologists working in suicide prevention today, states “the litmus test for talking about suicide is to substitute the word "cancer" for the word "suicide" to see if the sentence still makes sense or if it has a negative connotation. We wouldn't say "committed cancer" or "successful cancer"—we would simply say "cancer death" or "died of cancer." Thus, when it comes to suicide, we should say "suicide death" or "died of suicide."
Other changes include the way we sometimes use “successful or unsuccessful” in regard to someone dying by suicide or someone who attempts suicide. These words again may imply that the person who died by suicide has accomplished or not accomplished (a failure) the act of suicide. Again, we use “died by suicide” instead of successful attempt or we use “suicide attempt” as someone who has attempted suicide. Focus on providing factual and direct language that is judgmentfree of the person or the situation.
|Died by Suicide||Committed/Completed Suicide|
|Died by Suicide/Suicide death||Successful attempt|
|Suicide attempt||Unsuccessful attempt|
|Person living with suicidal thoughts or behavior||Suicide ideator or attempter|
|(Describe the behavior)||Manipulative, cry for help, or suicidal gesture|
|Working with someone in crisis||Dealing with suicidal crisis|
Sally Spencer-Thomas also writes that “we need workplaces, schools, faith communities, and healthcare systems to help model safe and compassionate language to help challenge the misinformation and myths that exist. We must learn to effectively disseminate our messages to large numbers of people. To do this, we need to craft safe and powerful messages, work collaboratively with traditional media outlets, and strategically use social media. We must craft messages that are positively engaging, provide people with the information we want them to remember, and give them action steps. Instead of just "raising awareness" by sharing statistics of suicide death, we can inspire hope by sharing stories of recovery and letting them know that help is available.”
There are many stories of those who are alive today by ‘starting the conversation and connecting through hope,’ We need to show others that there is hope and reasons to live…using current suicide language can open up the conversation into getting help.
Who We Are
Suicide Prevention Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps people who are in need of preventative suicide assistance