(Posted Nov. 23, 2020)
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). For the millions of Americans who have lost a loved one to suicide, this tragic loss can be compounded by the stigma surrounding mental health disorders or suicide itself.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is Nov. 23 and the Mental Health Recovery Board of Clark, Greene & Madison Counties (MHRB) is encouraging all members of the community to speak up and support suicide loss survivors, and in doing so, try to use language that survivors prefer.
“Nearly two of every hundred Americans in our country dies by suicide each year, but like an iceberg which only the top is visible, that number doesn’t reveal the expanse of families, friends and loved ones who are left behind and feel invisible under the water’s surface,” said Dr. Greta Mayer, CEO of MHRB. “We all know someone impacted by suicide loss in our communities, so speak up and say something supportive to acknowledge their loss. And, even better, try words that reduce stigma. Suicide is a traumatic event for family and friends who may be triggered at unexpected times and in various ways.”
According to NIMH, those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can re-experience a traumatic event when exposed to certain stimuli, including sights, sounds or key words. These “triggers” may include stigmatizing language about the event, like negative language about someone who died by suicide.
“No one commits suicide anymore. They die by suicide or suicided. It’s no longer a sin in most religions. It’s no longer a crime with law enforcement,” said Cindy Price who lost her son to suicide in 2009. “When someone dies by suicide or suicided it’s just like people die by heart attacks or high blood pressure. So, let’s change the verbiage; it makes it a little less traumatic for families.”
Mayer recommends always acknowledging the suicide loss rather than staying silent in fear of saying the wrong thing. She offers the following preferable phrases to practice saying and phrases to avoid to improve your ability to effectively support suicide loss survivors:
• survivor of suicide loss, not victim of suicide;
• died by suicide, took his/her/their own life, suicided or killed him/her/themselves, not committed suicide, successful suicide;
• suicide attempt, attempt to end his/her/their life, NOT failed or failed attempt or unsuccessful suicide;
• person with a mental illness or person living with a mental health concern, not mentally ill person;
• usual or typical behavior, not normal behavior;
• lives with, has a history of, or is being treated for (mental illness), not victim of mental illness.
Suicide should never be framed as aspirational (such as with fail/success terminology) or with shame (the word “committed” is associated with crime and sin, both of which have negative connotations), Mayer emphasized.
“Like so many life lessons, I didn’t learn this in graduate school when I was becoming a therapist,” she said. “I learned directly on the job from suicide loss survivors living in Clark, Greene and Madison counties like Cindy Price, Sue O’Rear and Linda Ward.”
Even if the words do not directly refer to survivors of suicide loss, the stigma is real and may still impact them and anyone who might be considering suicide that needs help, Mayer added.
This information is available as shareable social media graphics in MHRB’s suicide prevention toolkit. MHRB also offers a full guide to destigmatizing language for the public and journalists. Contact MHRB for the full guide.
For more information about mental health and substance use resources in Clark, Greene and Madison counties, including local survivors of suicide loss support groups, visit the MHRB website at www.mhrb.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis or considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In case of an emergency, always dial 911.
Mental Health Recovery Board of Clark, Greene & Madison Counties (MHRB) assists partners, stakeholders, residents and anyone at risk of mental health or substance use concerns in its three-county area, providing pathways to mental health and addiction services. In collaboration with more than 20 care providers, the board advocates for the mental health needs and facilitates delivery of quality care for all ages, regardless of income or ability to pay.