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Words Matter in Stopping Suicide Stigma

Suicide is an important and complex public health issue. According to the World Health Organization, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds.

When a suicide occurs, it’s shocking to not only the family members of the individual but to all those who knew them. The ways in which American society talks about suicide and how it is portrayed in the media and conversations can significantly impact the mental and emotional well-being of surviving loved ones.

The language sometimes used to describe suicide can frame negative connotations. We often hear the phrase “committed suicide”, or references to suicide as successful, unsuccessful or a failed attempt. The framing of suicide this way can carry a negative impact. Thus, phrases such as “died by suicide”, “completed” or “killed him/herself” are the phrases that organizations such as Reporting on Suicide recommend instead.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon which is generally not preceded by a single event, such as job loss or divorce. In fact, treatable disorders such as psychiatric illness or substance use disorders have been found in 90% of those who have died by suicide.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline lists many risk factors for suicide including mood disorders, substance use disorders, lack of social support, history of trauma and loss of a loved one to suicide. Harvard reports that each suicide leaves an estimated six “suicide survivors”, which is an individual who was particularly close to the victim who struggles to grasp the loss. This loss can be more difficult to cope with due to a variety of factors, such as the need for reason, the lack of understanding and the trauma of death.

Contrary to some media coverage, suicide is rarely an inexplicable event. People that die by suicide often exhibit warning signs such as extreme mood swings or talking about feeling hopeless, or being a burden, to name a few. Thus, the way we discuss suicide, as well as knowing the warning signs and what to do if we are concerned about a loved one are important. It is also important to remember that mental health and substance use disorders are treatable medical disorders.

If you or someone you know is displaying any of the warning signs of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, there are a variety of resources available to help you as well.

You may also find these helpful:
Coping with Suicide as the Number of Deaths Rise
Six Subtle Signs of Suicide
Suicide Prevention: Hope Can Save Lives

About the author: Dr. Kristyn Gregory, DO, is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Photo credit: grinvals

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