We all have a role to play in helping to reduce the stigma around mental health and suicide. The conversations we have and the way we talk about suicide have the power to save lives.
Yet too often, we hear words and phrases that can be stigmatising, especially for people who are vulnerable to suicide or bereaved by suicide, who can be particularly impacted by language. Terms such as ‘Committed suicide’, ‘failed suicide’ and ‘political suicide’ are all familiar phrases but are examples of language that can be stigmatising, alienating, or sensationalising.
The areas of mental health and suicide are complex and multifaceted, and sometimes the words we use can be stigmatising, even though we don’t mean them to be. Sometimes we hear these terms in the news or other media, but that doesn’t make them right.
Stigmatising language can perpetuate negative stereotypes about mental health and suicide, implying that something or someone is bad or to be ashamed of.
Quest for Life is a signatory to The National Communications Charter, which promotes a common language in mental health, mental illness and suicide, outlined in the National Communications Charter language guide.
Choosing our words carefully is about more than avoiding stigmatising terms. The language we use can also have a positive effect, which makes choosing the right words just as important as avoiding the wrong ones.
Join our quest to educate others in better language choices when talking about suicide and mental health. Here we shed light on some language dos and don’ts when referring to suicide.
You could ask why the use of these phrases is in question and dismiss the question altogether by arguing that it’s not the words we should be concerned about, but the suicide itself, not the triviality of a particular verb or adjective.
One of the crucial steps in reducing the stigma of suicide is to encourage dialogue. By looking at the particular words used in the language of suicide, we can help facilitate this dialogue by selecting more neutral and compassionate words to describe the act.
Why not ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ suicide?
Words have the power to shape our perceptions. To refer to a suicide as ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ suggests that suicide is the desired outcome. ‘Successful’ gives the act a positive slant, while ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘failed attempt’ give a negative slant.
Better terms to use are ‘suicide attempt’ or ‘died by suicide’.
Why not ‘committed suicide’?
It’s a phrase that is so common and widely accepted, it seems entrenched in our language. However, these words are perpetuating stigma. ‘Committing suicide’ has criminal overtones which refer to a time when it was illegal to kill oneself. It implies suicide is a sin or crime, reinforcing that it’s a selfish act or personal choice.
‘Commit’ is also commonly used in connection with religious offences. Over time, suicide has been regarded as a cardinal sin in some religions and is still often considered a moral sin.
Although the notoriety of the word may have dulled over time, the underlying residue remains.
Instead, use phrases like ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took their own life’, which are more compassionate and respectful and help strip away the shame/blame element.
Why not ‘suicide epidemic’?
Words like ‘epidemic’ can sensationalise and spark panic, making suicide seem inevitable or more common than it actually is. By using purely quantitative, less emotionally charged terms like ‘increasing’ or ‘higher’ rates, we can avoid instilling a sense of doom or hopelessness.
Why not ‘failed suicide’ or ‘bid’?
The notion of a ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ suicide is inappropriate because it frames a very tragic outcome as an achievement or something positive, glamorising the act. Better language to use is ‘survived a suicide attempt’ or ‘non-fatal attempt’.
Why not ‘political suicide’ or ‘suicide mission’?
These terms are inaccurate and use the word ‘suicide’ out of context.
Quest for Life is not a crisis centre. If you, or someone you’re concerned about, need immediate help, call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
24-hour help, support and advice is available from these services:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78
- Open Arms crisis line – 1800 011 146 (for Australian Defence Force personnel and their families)
- StandBy – an organisation that supports those left behind after a suicide, be they family, friends, part of the community or even a social media acquaintance.
How Quest for Life can help
Quest for Life has a strong commitment to reducing deaths by suicide and our Healing Your Life and Moving Beyond Trauma programs have been accredited with Suicide Prevention Australia, the national peak body for the suicide prevention sector.
At Quest, we provide people with a safe environment where they can utter the unutterable. We offer tools and strategies to heal the past, build a better future and restore hope through our Residential Programs.
Quest for Life knows how to help: our internal research results show that participants feel better after attending a program and that this improvement increases over time. On our programs, you’ll be nourished, educated and supported to find a way forward and create an environment for profound healing.
If you would like more information about how our programs can help, please reach out to us and start a conversation with one of our Program Advisors, who can answer your questions or find the most appropriate program for your needs. Call Us Today on 1300 941 488.