Making Space to Speak the Unspeakable: Talking About Suicide

Nicole Dunn

Suicide can feel unspeakable because for many of us, being in a place where living no longer feels like an option is unimaginable. In conversation, you may have noticed that it is not uncommon for the word “suicide” to be whispered or mouthed as an acknowledgment that something here is taboo. It is an emotionally charged word, loaded with feelings of blame, anger, guilt, sadness, and shame. No matter your lived experiences, speaking about suicide in some way forces us to confront the existence of these complicated and often deeply uncomfortable emotions. And yet, we know that having conversations about suicide is important – in fact, lifesaving. In the interest of making the unspeakable speakable, the following discussion will unpack some common terminology used to talk about suicide and offer some alternative language.

To understand language and its relationship to suicide, it’s helpful to acknowledge that for 80 years in Canada, suicide was codified as a criminal offence. Then, in 1972, suicide was decriminalized. But the language commonly used to talk about this issue still tends to include criminal overtones. For example, it is common to hear someone say that “X committed suicide”. The consequences of using the term “commit” when referring to suicide lies in its ability to generate feelings of shame. According to Brené Brown, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging [because of] something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do...” [1]. Using the term “commit” thus likens a person’s unimaginable experience of pain to a crime. Acts we “commit” tend to be reprehensible and so you can imagine that this association might generate feelings of shame. Furthermore, the word “commit” conveys literally nothing about the fact that a suicide is the tragic outcome of someone’s personal struggle [2]. Nonetheless, we know that experiencing deep physical and/or emotional pain does not make someone a criminal. We don’t say things like “X committed depression” or “X committed post-traumatic-stress-disorder”. We recognize that these conditions are not chosen, but are instead, serious mental health concerns that deserve compassion and empathy. As an alternative, instead of saying “X committed suicide” a neutral approach might be to say, “X died by suicide”.  This strategy has two advantages. On the one hand, it is very matter of fact, and does not diminish or try to hide the gravity of the act. On the other hand, this approach eliminates shame from the conversation.

Other shameful terminology that exists relating to suicide includes phrases like “successful attempt” and “failed attempt”. Here, a “successful attempt” refers to someone who died by suicide and a “failed attempt” refers to someone who survived suicide. If you read that and felt something rubbed you the wrong way, you’re not alone. Indeed, it’s puzzling to associate success with death and failure with life. Using language that couples the notion of achievement with suicide is very far removed from the nature of the issue and does not do this public health concern the compassionate justice it deserves. In place of “successful attempt”, neutral language opts to use “died by suicide” and in place of “failed attempt”, “suicide survivor” can be used.

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Shame is seriously dangerous. It is an emotion that is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, eating disorders, and suicide [3]. Shame does have an antidote, however, and it is found in the empathic reception of this emotion. By defusing the shame that discussions of suicide provoke, empathic communication helps makes space for us to speak about suicide, and is thus an important way to support survivors. In one study, researchers found that parents of young adult children who died by suicide found joy in talking about their lost loved ones as a means to keep their memory alive and process their grief. But they also felt that before they could open up about their child, they had to test their listeners to avoid unsupportive reactions. For parents, this process had the potential to isolate them in the moments they most wanted support [4]. Overcoming this barrier means conveying empathy to survivors and a simple and survivor-centric way to do this is through our language use. In fact, demonstrating this kind of care is proven to have a meaningful impact as research has shown that reducing stigma can improve access to care for mental health [5,6,7]. In other terms, communicating from a place of empathy can be life-saving.

At the Hatching Ideas Hub, we recognize that using neutral language when talking about suicide requires both knowledge of the weight of words and a willingness to be conscientious about their selection – a task that is not always easy! In fact, when it comes to talking about emotionally charged content, there are no perfect ways to have these conversations. But do have them. Language use might appear to be a minor issue in the grand scheme of suicide prevention efforts. After all, “a change in the words we use will not immediately dispel deep-seated prejudices” [2] but it can help lay the foundation for addressing this topic from a place of empathy, and the power of this should never be overlooked.

References

[1] Brown, B. (2017, September 10). Shame v. guilt. Retrieved January 15, 2018, from https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/

[2] Sommer-Rotenberg, D. (1998). Suicide and Language. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 159, 239-40.

[3] Brown, B. (2012, March 16). Listening to shame. Retrieved January 20, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0

[4] Maple, M., Edwards, H., Plummer, D. & Minichiello, V. (2010). Silenced Voices: Hearing the stories of parents bereaved through the suicide death of a young adult child. Health and Social Care in the Community, 18, 241-248.

[5] Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59, 614–625.

[6] Scocco, P., Preti, A., Totaro, S., Ferrari, A., & Toffol, E. (2017). Stigma and psychosocial distress in suicide survivors. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 94, 39-46.

[7] Perlick, D. A. (2001). Special section on stigma as a barrier to recovery: Introduction. Psychiatric Services 52, 1613–1614.

The Hatching Ideas blog contains discussions of mental health, suicide, social vulnerability and other, similar topics. The topics discussed may prompt unwelcome reminders, and we ask our readers to exercise discretion when reading. In case of an emergency, please contact your local health provider or dial emergency medical services (9-1-1).