Please be careful with how you talk about suicide – here’s how

Thirteen years ago today, as many people know, my wonderful, kind, funny Dad walked into our garage on a sunny Easter Monday morning and took his own life

That sentence is still hard to write because talking about suicide is tough. It’s also incredibly important. But what’s also important is how we talk about it. When we get the conversation wrong it can add shame and stigma to people who are struggling with their mental health. From a personal perspective, it can also hurt people who have lost someone they loved in this awful, heartbreaking way. And because a person dies by suicide every 40 seconds, that’s quite a lot of people.

Language is powerful. So here are some of the things I would like people to think twice about saying when they talk about suicide, or to a person who is bereaved by suicide. (Sidenote: I haven’t included things that are blatantly hurtful like “he was selfish” because to be quite honest if in 2022 you’re still going around telling people their dead loved ones are selfish in then you are possibly a bit of a twat.)

“He committed suicide”

When I first heard that we should avoid this phrase I thought it was a bit of a silly PC thing that didn’t really matter. But I now understand that it does matter because the words we use are so important. The phrase “committed suicide” dates back to a time when suicide was considered a sin or a crime; people commit murder or commit adultery, but we wouldn’t say someone ‘committed’ a heart attack. Consciously or not, language influences our feelings and beliefs, so it’s really important to try not to use language which could potentially encourage feelings of negativity or shame. Please try to say ‘died by suicide’  or ‘took their own life’ instead.

“I couldn’t do that to my loved ones.”

I hear this a lot, often when the circumstances of someone’s death are unclear and suicide is an option but people maintain that person “wouldn’t do that to their family.” It makes me feel horrible. It shows a complete lack of understanding of mental health and the rational part of me knows that. But the part of me that is still a little bit broken 13 years on hears “he didn’t love you enough.” Please, please, don’t ever suggest that love is an antidote to depression. I wish it was.

“It was his choice” / “It was what he wanted.”

A few people have said this to me and I understand it comes from a good place – they want me to feel that he’s at peace now. But the concept of “choice” is complicated because thought processes are gravely distorted by mental health. If a person’s illness prevents them from making a rational decision, then it is not a choice. These phrases are ones that I struggle with because when people say it to me I can’t help but worry that they think my loss is not as great as someone who lost a loved one to say cancer, that my dad’s death wasn’t as devastating because he “chose” it. But he didn’t and it was.

“Why did he do it?”

I get why people want to know this. I spent the first eight or so years rifling through drawers and clothing looking for a note, desperate for an answer to that same question. And it took me a long time to understand something that I think it’s really important that we all try to understand: He did it because he was very, very ill with depression, just as people can be terminally ill with cancer. There was no other reason. There never is.

“If only he had just opened up to someone.”

I wasn’t sure whether to include this one as it IS so important that we encourage people to talk when they are feeling low. But opening up isn’t a cure. There is no magic. There needs to be so much more to help people with mental illness and that is a whole other conversation, but we can’t minimise depression into something that can be fixed with a chat and a cup of tea. That would be lovely, but it isn’t realistic. It can also place a lot of guilt on those of us who were left behind. We already torture ourselves that we didn’t do enough, that we didn’t spot the signs. That we could have saved them if they’d only talked to us. But depression is bigger than that, bigger than us. The writer Virginia Woolf wrote in her suicide note to her husband “if anyone could have saved me it would have been you.” I think about that quote often.

What to say instead

I want to end by caveating that if you are talking to someone about suicide at all then it is enough. Grief, especially when it comes to suicide, is so hard for everyone to navigate and people are bound to say the “wrong” thing, but I am always always grateful that people try to talk to me about it at all. I wrote this because if even a few people read it and change the way they talk about suicide then it might have some tiny impact on helping remove the stigma around mental health, which has been my goal since that terrible day in April 2009.

If you are struggling with what to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide then my advice would be to talk about the person that is no longer here. People don’t ask about my dad all that often and I get it… it’s awkward and they don’t know if I want to talk about him or not. But I do want to talk about him. So please, ask me about him, share your memories of him. I love hearing about him. I started this piece of writing by talking about how words are powerful, and they are; words keep my dad’s memory alive.

Thank you for reading.

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