More People Are Talking About Suicide. Let's Make Those Conversations Better | Opinion

On July 23, 2005, my family received the phone call nobody wants to receive—my 27-year-old cousin, Danny, had just taken his own life. We knew that Danny had been struggling, in fact he had recently been released from an inpatient care facility just days before this terrible day. But this newly married, bright, funny, accomplished, loved young man was in so much pain that he couldn't see another way out.

With more than 12 million adults and 3 million adolescents reporting to have had serious thoughts of suicide each year, not to mention the more than 45,000 people in the U.S. losing their lives each year, suicide prevention and mental health have never been more important. The good news is that, as a nation, we are talking about these issues more than ever before—something that's long overdue.

Nearly 20 years ago when my cousin died, suicide and mental health were still talked about in hushed voices and shrouded in secrecy and shame. Thankfully, that's changing. In fact, recent polling finds that 75 percent of those surveyed are comfortable being there for or helping a loved one who might be struggling or having thoughts of suicide. In addition, more than half of respondents (58 percent) feel comfortable talking openly in public about mental health and nearly half (49 percent) feel comfortable talking openly in public about suicide—both of which are up from previous years. However, as we begin having these more open and honest public conversations about mental health and suicide prevention, it's important to keep in mind that how we talk about these issues matters.

As my colleagues at Education Development Center (EDC) and I outline in a recent HPHR Journal article, the language we use to talk and message about mental health and suicide can either be harmful or helpful. As you talk with your family, friends, colleagues, and community leaders about these important issues, keep in mind the following reminders to ensure our words are promoting hope and help-seeking, rather than increasing hopelessness and stigma:

Suicide is a Public Health Concern

Avoid further stigmatizing people who have died or lost someone to suicide by using terms like "committed suicide" or "successful suicide," which imply a crime or accomplishment. Instead, say "died by suicide" or "took their own life" to help frame suicide in the same way we do other public health issues, such as cancer or heart disease.

No Two Lived Experiences Are the Same

Avoid oversimplifying suicide by either attributing a suicide death to a single cause or circumstance (such as job loss, relationship ending, or bullying) or describing a suicide as inexplicable. Instead, acknowledge that a death by suicide is often a result of a complex set of contributing factors, but that there are often warning signs and prevention can be possible.

A person walks through afternoon shadows
A person walks through the afternoon shadows at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Mental Illness ≠ Violence

Avoid drawing conclusions about someone's mental state or mental health diagnosis following an act of violence, whether toward themselves or others. Instead, highlight the fact that those experiencing mental illness are more likely to be the victims of a crime rather than the perpetrator. In addition, reinforce that while mental illness is a risk factor for suicide, not everyone who has a mental illness will go on to die by suicide and not everyone who dies by suicide has a mental illness.

Offhand Remarks May Seem Harmless, But Can Increase Stigma

Avoid using terms such as "crazy" or "insane"—even when talking in casual conversation (such as, "that's so crazy," or "that was insane")—as this can further stigmatize and marginalize those experiencing a mental illness. Instead, more clearly articulate what it is you are trying to say, such as "that's so unexpected" or "that was ridiculous."

Happy and Healthy Lives Are Possible for Those With Mental Illness

Avoid describing someone as "suffering from" a mental illness, which implies someone is unwell, unhappy, or can't recover or find the support needed to live fully. Instead, describe them as "experiencing" or "living with" a mental illness since many people who experience a mental health condition can and do live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Not only am I a suicide loss survivor, but I also live with my own mental health diagnosis of generalized anxiety—just like millions of other Americans. Now that we are speaking more openly and honestly about these conditions, we have an important opportunity to raise the standard for how we talk about them—during Suicide Prevention Month this September and all throughout the year.

As the great Maya Angelou once said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." Let's take the opportunity before us as an invitation to do better. These conversations are too important not to.

For more information on messaging about suicide, suicide prevention, and mental illness, visit the Framework for Successful Messaging or Reframing Language. If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing emotional distress, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

Maureen Iselin is associate director of communications with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, housed at Education Development Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.