Words have power… Language matters when we talk about suicide.
Stigma against mental health makes it harder for people to feel safe about bringing up mental health challenges they may be struggling with. This stigma doesn’t just affect the person facing the mental health challenge, but also affects those who support them, including family members.
When we talk about suicide stigma, it’s especially important to acknowledge the role that our language can have. The words we use to talk about suicide reflects our own attitudes, and influences our attitudes and the attitudes of others. Some examples of suicide stigma are calling people who die by suicide “cowards” or “selfish,” or suggesting that they’re just looking for attention. When we talk about someone struggling with suicide in this way, we suggest that they should not be taken seriously.
The attitudes we hold about mental health and suicide influence our behavior and informs the kinds of government policies we implement. One example is when we say “commit suicide,” which suggests that suicide is a criminal act of “self-murder” that should be punished.
Once upon a time, taking your own life was considered a crime in many parts of the world. Until 1822 in England and Wales, the possessions of a person who had died of suicide could be forfeited to the Crown. Suicide wasn’t decriminalized in the United Kingdom until 1961 and in Ireland until 1993. While suicide is no longer treated as a crime in the United States, as recently as 2018 a man had been charged with attempted suicide in Maryland.
While suicide is no longer criminalized in most countries, the phrase “to commit suicide” is still very common. Talking about suicide in this way reinforces the stigma that it’s a selfish act and personal choice. Not only is this term outdated, it ignores the fact that suicide is often a consequence of an unaddressed mental health challenge.
Instead of saying “commit suicide,” use phrases like “took their own life,” “died by suicide,” or “lost their life to suicide.” Changing our language can help people considering suicide feel safer asking for help, which means changing our language can help save lives.
Text HOME to 741741 to speak with someone from the Crisis Text Line or call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
- Pledge to Be StigmaFree The StigmaFree campaign is NAMI’s effort to end stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness. Through powerful words and actions, we can shift the social and systemic barriers for those living with mental health conditions.
- Take the StigmaFree Quiz Record your answers to the questions and learn about the results to see if you are affected by stigma.
- To Write Love On Her Arms To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) is an American nonprofit organization that aims to present hope for people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide, while also investing in treatment and recovery. TWLOHA encourages people to have honest conversations about mental health and seeks to connect people to treatment centers, websites, books, support groups, helplines, and other resources.
- Stamp Out Stigma Stamp Out Stigma is an initiative spearheaded by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders. This campaign challenges each of us to transform the dialogue on mental health and addiction from a whisper to a conversation.
- Make It OK Make It OK is a campaign to reduce the stigma of mental illnesses. The organizations listed here have pledged their commitment to change the hearts and minds about the misperceptions of mental illnesses by encouraging open conversations and education on the topic.