Content Warning: This article discusses suicide and contains examples of hurtful or outdated language sometimes used when discussing suicide. While this content might be triggering for those directly impacted by suicide, we believe difficult conversations around how best to discuss mental health in respectful and non-stigmatizing ways is imperative. If you are in a life threatening situation, please call +1 (800) 273-8255 or use these resources to get immediate help.
During my senior year of high school, a student two years younger than me died by suicide. The school was stricken with grief and wanted to do everything in their power to help the community overcome this loss. School was cancelled the following day, the guidance department opened their doors to anyone who wanted to talk, and a mass was held in his remembrance. It was the only thing that anyone seemed to talk about. Yet, just three weeks later, another student followed in his footsteps.
The school realized that they were not equipped to handle the situation and called in help from a few outside psychologists, who instructed them to not glorify the victim. They were told that talking about suicide in the wrong manner may only exacerbate the situation, a phenomenon known as the “Werther” effect. As a result, the school decided to be more tight lipped about the deaths.
While I am glad that there was no third victim, I still feel that the community could have benefitted from more closure. I want to explore how we as individuals could reframe the way we speak about mental health, and suicide in particular.
Let’s take a look at what it means to talk about suicide in a more conscientious manner.
The Werther Effect is named after the 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s protagonist dies by suicide. In response to the novel, many young men took their own lives while dressed in the same outfits as Werther, using a similar pistol, and even with the book itself in their hands. Although originally describing the idea of a widely publicized suicide triggering suicide contagion, the effect has come to explain any form of “copycat suicide.”
The Werther Effect was by no means a fluke. Look no further than the hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why to see the impact of an insensitive portrayal of suicide. While well-intended, the month after that show’s release saw a 29% increase in teen suicide.
What many people struggle to realize is the significant effect that such a loss can have on even a small community. According to a 2016 study, 115 people are affected on average by just one suicide. Those affected are approximately twice as likely to have diagnosable depression or anxiety as a result.
While the loss of a loved one will always have an impact, further catastrophe can be prevented if we all learn how to better handle such situations with more sensitivity.
What to Avoid When Talking About Suicide
When first considering this, I had hoped to focus exclusively on the positive result that can surround more open conversations about suicide. A quick google search will point out the hundred things that you should not say about suicide, but I wanted to do something a little different. Yet, it is impossible to cover the topic without also focusing on the hurdles — and dangers — of open discussions of suicide. Of course, it’s also easier to tangentialize what we do wrong than what we could do right.
So, first let’s run through common sensitivities to be aware of when talking about suicide before we get into the ways that being more open in discussing suicide can have positive effects.
Don’t use stigmatizing phrases
Certain things that we say about a delicate subject, such as suicide, can have far reaching repercussions, even if unintended. It was not until recently that someone pointed out to me that I had wrongly been using the phrase “commit suicide” and I stopped to think what that suggested.
Think about all of the other times that you use “commit.” You probably came up with a series of phrases that portray the subject as a wrongdoer of some sort. It is important to remember that mental illness is not anyone’s fault, but rather something that we should work together to help alleviate. Try replacing this phrase with “die by suicide” instead.
Another major misstep people make when discussing suicide is to refer to an attempt as either successful or unsuccessful. Keep in mind that describing a suicide as “successful” suggests positive connotations around the loss of life. Suicidal behavior should be classified as either a suicide or an attempted suicide, leaving out unintended, moralizing implications. Graphically detailing the method, means, or description of how a person died can also increase the risk of suicide for vulnerable individuals and so is best avoided.
Don’t imply blame
During the confusion in the wake of a suicide, it is understandable to start searching for answers. Yet, blaming someone, be it the victim or someone close to them, is unproductive.
With respect to the victim, recognize that he or she is not being “selfish,” but is likely struggling. Science has shown that people who die by suicide often have little control over their actions in the moments leading up to their death, with mental illness distorting their reality and leading them to make a decision that they ultimately may not have wished to make.
Those close to the victim will likely deal with feelings of survivor’s guilt. Therefore, while questions about whether they “noticed anything going on recently” might seem harmless, they may perpetuate self-doubt in those close to the victim.
Don’t minimize the loss
As much as you may want to lessen the blow and try and move past a tragic event, pushing someone to move on can prevent them from being able to address it on their own terms. Everyone handles grief in their own way, and rushing that process or diminishing their emotions can only make it harder.
It is important that people are given the time and space to mourn and handle their grief. Try instead: shining a light on the happy times you had with the deceased and celebrating their life. It is important not to just remember them by their last act, but as the entirety of who they were.
How Communities Can Better Approach Suicide
It’s often said that ignoring or suppressing what we want to say only exacerbates the problem. That can also be true for suicide. It’s important that people feel free to discuss their struggles, to ask for help, and for all of us to work to destigmatize mental illness generally, and the topic of suicide specifically. No matter how difficult a conversation may seem, it is always a worthwhile one to have. With that being said, here are some things to keep in mind so that you can talk about suicide the right way.
Treat it for what it is — a health condition
The biggest inhibitor to a healthy conversation about suicide is the stigma that surrounds it. Mental illness has a long history of under-recognition, which has had a detrimental impact for those who struggle with it. Although we’re still far from the day when mental health conditions are treated in the same manner as their physical counterparts, we can start to make conscious decisions right now to talk about our mental health in the same way. This will at least be a step in the right direction.
Next time the conversation of mental illness or suicide comes up, think how you would phrase something if it was instead about someone who was suffering from or died because of a heart condition. Tailor your conversation accordingly.
Nobody is forcing you to share what you are not comfortable with, but if we were all a little more open about our own lives, it might make others feel more comfortable opening up as well. In my own experience, sharing my lows with others made them much more likely to start a dialogue about their own mental health.
While mental health issues are still taboo, this means sufferers feel like they are all alone, when in reality, that isn’t the case. In fact, one in four Americans struggle with a mental illness each year, but without the confidence to come forward, many suffer in silence.
Finally, when you are talking about mental illness, it is important not to leave anything open to interpretation. If you think someone needs help, say something while you have the chance. There are endless resources that are equipped to handle crises. The key is to make sure they are utilized.
Resources For You, Your Loved Ones, and Community
While we can try to do everything in our power to prevent future suicides, there are people who are already living with suicidal thoughts and ideation. It is important to remember that there are resources available to help.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Remember it and share it, because you never know when you may need it. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24/7 and is well equipped to handle those in crisis.
Crisis Text Line
The Crisis Text Line is the free, 24/7, confidential text message service for people in crisis. Text HOME to 741741 in the United States to speak with a crisis counselor, a real-life human being trained to bring texters from a hot moment to a cool calm.
Text HOME to 741741 and learn more at www.crisitextline.org
Whether you are having suicidal ideation yourself or someone close to you is, you’re not alone. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has lists of support groups that can be beneficial. You can find the list here.
Last but not least, speaking to a mental health professional on a regular basis has been shown to be efficacious. After a suicide attempt, those who participate in regular therapy sessions are 26% less likely to die by suicide, according to one study.
While there is progress being made surrounding the stigma of mental illness, suicide will never be easy to talk about. What’s most important is when we do talk about it, we use language that is both respectful and keeps from implying or laying blame. Reframing the way we talk about mental illness, specifically suicide, can help foster an environment where individuals can discuss their struggles, and ultimately feel safe to ask for help when needed. Having resources readily available can be powerful — you never know when you or a loved one might need it.