Heather Sundahl and Jennifer Morgan Smith: When it comes to suicide awareness, words matter

To say that someone has ‘committed’ suicide implies a crime or a sin, and makes it harder to prevent.

The old playground adage about the power of sticks and stones versus words is far from the truth. Language matters. Words carry meaning that can shape how we perceive the world and, from time to time, it can be necessary to examine those words and take action.

As September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we want to make the public aware of a shift in language in the mental health world, and ask that we stop using the verb “commit” in relation to suicide.

Why the change? The word “commit” is associated with crime or sin, such as “committing murder” or “committing adultery” and, while a few states still criminalize suicide, most have rejected such laws, recognizing it is a mental health issue, not a legal one.

Using “commit” implies malicious intent and negates the hopelessness and vulnerability of those who end their own lives. Would we ever say a person “committed cancer?” So instead of “committed suicide” say “died of suicide.” Instead of “unsuccessful attempt” say “suicide attempt.”

The word “commit” also feeds into the false idea that people who consider suicide are “selfish.” The reality is that those who contemplate ending their lives often feel like their death will relieve the burdens of their loved ones. In fact, you can often read in someone’s suicide notes that their perceived burdensomeness is a significant factor in ending their life.

Another factor is when someone is in so much pain that the only solution seems to be death — anything to stop the suffering, no matter the consequences. Either way, it’s vital we challenge this damaging perception.

The stigma has real life consequences for suicidal individuals and their families. Families who lose someone to suicide often experience avoidance and even condemnation from their community. If no one shows up with a casserole or reaches out with empathy, does it matter whether it’s due to discomfort or judgment?

No wonder so many families try to keep a suicide death a secret, and those wrestling with suicidal ideation find it hard to open up about their desire to stop the pain as there is so much stigma and shame associated with even thinking about suicide.

Losing someone is devastating, and when we withhold compassion and care, we amplify the social alienation that can also contribute to suicidal ideation.

In Utah, preventing suicide is urgent as we have the sixth-highest rate in the nation and it is the leading cause of death among teens. And the national shortage of therapists does not help. But there are resources for those in crisis.

This summer the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services introduced the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline which is a “free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress,” replacing an old ten-digit number. Compared to last year, calls answered are up 50%, texts answered are up 1000%, and chats on the website are up 195%.

While improved crisis lines are helping, each of us can play a role, too. Talk about it. Just as the words we use in association with suicide matter, choosing to talk about suicide matters.

Parents, friends, teachers, religious leaders, co-workers, if you are concerned about someone, be the person willing to reach out. Ask questions, show concern, let them know you are not afraid of the intensity of their feelings. Talking about it won’t “introduce” it or make it happen. In fact, asking someone if they are struggling with thoughts of killing themself can help prevent their death.

It’s not easy, even for therapists, who must get suicide prevention training every year, to have these hard conversations with clients. But it matters.

So, ask the question, “Have you been thinking about suicide?” And be willing to hear their answer. No matter what.

Jennifer Morgan Smith

Jennifer Morgan Smith, LMFT, MBA, has been a practicing therapist for 25 years, is an owner of PassageWise, and trains therapists and consults with businesses on mental health matters.

Heather Sundahl

Heather Sundahl is a marriage and family therapy intern at Utah Valley University and is a writer and editor for the BYU ARTS Partnership and the Utah Women & Leadership Project.