On August 17, 2023, at 12:15pm to be exact, I did a thing.
DISCLAIMER: This blog article contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know might be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text at 741741, or chat online at 988lifeline.org.
Have you talked about suicide lately? I expect the answer to be no for most of my readers (unless you are a nurse, doctor, social worker, teacher, or mental health professional). Suicide is one of those topics that we know about but try at all costs to avoid talking about. Until it happens. Either in popular media, in our community, or worse yet-in our own family. Then the conversation, that makes even some of the most seasoned professionals on suicide squirm, is thrust in the forefront. Other than that, most of us pretty much evade the topic of suicide.
Suicide is on the rise in the United States. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents that in 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. More sobering, suicide is "a significant cause of premature death because it is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10–14, 15–24, and 25–34." You read that right. Second leading cause of death.
The World Health Organization (WHO, 2023) reports the following regarding world data:
More than 700 000 people die due to suicide every year.
For every suicide there are many more people who attempt suicide. A prior suicide attempt is an important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds.
Seventy-seven per cent of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Ingestion of pesticide, hanging and firearms are among the most common methods of suicide globally.
Suicide is more than just a U.S. issue. It is a world public health issue. Yet, many of us still don't know how to talk about suicide. Death and grieving as a whole are hard for us to talk about. Suicide doubly so. Sometimes, heck a lot of times, talking about suicide involves feeling awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not easy. But it is important. Suicide prevention starts before we see the signs, but it becomes even more important when we do.
Each year in September, the CDC observes Suicide Prevention Month. The goal is to promote understanding of suicide as a significant public health issue and to emphasize that everyone can play a role in preventing it. First step, raise awareness. So be prepared to see and hear a lot more on this topic here on this blog. In your local news media. At your children's schools. Even at doctor's offices. It is just that important.
To kick off Suicide Prevention Month here at EnvisionCo Blog, we will focus on our words. Words are powerful. They can uplift, inspire, and heal, but they can also harm and stigmatize. When it comes to the sensitive issue of suicide, the language we use can have a profound impact on individuals who are struggling.
Suicide, the language of shame
The language of suicide is surrounded by taboo, shame, and stigma. There is much to consider with this one. We'll start with the word itself. When we consider the history of the word "suicide" some immediate associations that come to mind are "sin," "dishonor," or "illegal." In many cultures, suicide was considered a criminal act, hence the phrase, "committed suicide." Our continued use of the phrase, "committed suicide" implies criminality as in "committed robbery," or "committed murder," or "committed rape." Suicide is not a criminal issue. Therefore, "committed suicide" is both outdated and offensive and is best to be avoided.
Instead, simply say the person, "died by suicide."
Suicide, successful or failed
Why are we thinking of suicide in the terms of success or failure? It took a while for the medical and mental health profession to re-evaluate this one. When a person dies by suicide, we formerly referred to that as successful suicide, thus portraying suicide as a success. Yikes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes, a person does not die by suicide. In the past, you may have heard this referred to as "unsuccessful suicide" or "failed attempt at suicide." Leading experts now recognize that this too was a SNAFU that we needed to correct. When we say failed attempt, we are inadvertently presenting survival as a failure. Did you cringe at that too?
The way we discuss suicide matters more than we could ever imagine. Using outdated, judgmental, or stigmatizing language can push people who are already struggling even further away from seeking help or opening up to others. It is crucial that we recognize that our words carry a weight that can either facilitate recovery or exacerbate despair.
On August 17, 2023, at 12:15pm to be exact, I did a thing. I reached out to a local news agency that had reported the death by suicide of a local 14-year-old high school student. The reason? I didn't like the language used in their article. Other than my blog, I usually am not very vocal reaching out to other professionals about their work. How could I tell a journalist about how to report the news?
But there was something about seeing the accompanying images of this sweet, young girl that did something to my heart. I found myself wondering all kinds of things about her. Like, if she was a reader like me? Or if she was into music like my brother? Maybe she was an artist like my 12-year-old cousin? Did she like sunflowers like one of my coworkers? I definitely could see her smile, but I wonder what her laugh sounded like? Was she afraid of the dark? Did she like Coke or Pepsi? What latest Tiktok dance had her stumbling over her own feet? Or maybe she was an avid dancer? Did she like band? Could she play an instrument? What was her favorite place to visit? What was a vacation destination that she anxiously wanted to see? Was she into rom-coms, horror films, or action movies? What did she hope to be when she grew up? All these separate thoughts flooded my mind as I viewed this image. And I realized, she was a daughter to all of her community. The void left in losing her will be felt by so many of us. And then I realized that she deserved for me to share with the news organization helpful information on safely reporting suicide. Her suicide. She was more than just an attention-grabbing news title.
I was very saddened to learn of the Elba High student who died by suicide recently. Certainly, all of our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends, and community of the beautiful young lady. I debated on whether or not to reach out to your organization about this article. There were some terminologies used that caused some concerns. As a person in the mental health field, I do feel it is important that I put my personal worries aside about how this may be received and use this moment to engage in knowledge exchange about how to safely report suicide that I hope will be useful to your organization in the future. All information I am about to share is a culmination of my graduate school education (Master of Science in Counseling & Psychology), various continuing education workshops on suicide prevention, and information readily available on the NIH (National Institute of Health) and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) websites. Research tends to show that how we discuss suicide matters especially when our audience can be comprised of vulnerable aged youth or even emotionally vulnerable adults who may be contemplating suicide. This phenomenon is the suicide contagion. It is recommended that when discussing suicide, certain language should be avoided. The title of your article is entitled: "Elba High School student commits suicide after being bullied for three years, her family says." However, it is generally recommended that the term "committed suicide" be avoided and instead use the language died by suicide. Rationale behind this recommendation is that "committed" implies sin or crime and pathologizes those affected. Other cautionary phrases that are recommended that we avoid are “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.” Instead use, “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself.” I also noted that the method of the young person's death was noted in the article, "...when they returned that morning, they found that her 14-year-old daughter Shanaiya had shot and killed herself while getting ready for school." Organizations like NIH and NAMI caution about telling the method of a person's suicide. The rationale is that learning the method of how a person died by suicide can show a person contemplating suicide what to do or how it works. Here are some links from subject matter experts in suicide prevention and education:
These are a few observations that were immediately apparent to me when reading the most recent article. Please do not receive this as a criticism but more as a labor of love. I would like to end my contact on a positive, as again this is not a criticism. I absolutely loved that you listed the crisis line 988 number and encouraged the public to reach out if they are considering suicide.
I know that the young lady's name was published in the original news story but for the purposes of this blog, out of respect I blackened out her name as well as the method she used to die by suicide. My response to the news organization was emotional and definitely wasn't my most polished work. None of that mattered then nor now. What matters is sharing knowledge so that the news organization could get it right.
Though I never received anything back beyond this generic automated response, I am happy to report that they did in fact go back and update the title of the article with the corrected, non-offensive language. A small win, but a win nonetheless! Suicide Prevention Month reminds us that we can prevent suicides, and together, we can make a real difference. Changing our language surrounding suicide isn't just about political correctness; it's about saving lives. When we learn more about mental health and suicide, when we break down stereotypes, when we use compassionate and non-stigmatizing language, we create an environment in which individuals are more likely to seek help, confide in others, and ultimately, find the support they need to recover.
Let this month be a starting point, motivating us to continue our efforts year-round, so that everyone can have the support and tools to lead a happy, fulfilling life. Here is one way you can start. Identify the crisis numbers specific to your region, state, or country. Share them in the comment section below. When you share this article on your social media pages and groups, please also share your state's or country's specific helplines along with the U.S. National Crisis Support number 988. And as always, please remember. Wherever you are on this wellness journey, do not worry about getting it perfect; just get it going. Take care of yourselves and take care of each other. Until next time. Happy reading.
"When I dare to be powerful-to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less and important whether I am afraid." ~Audre Lorde
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