Choose words carefully if dealing with suicide

Every time I hear the phrase ''committing suicide'' it feels like someone has sucker-punched me in the stomach. It's hideously common to hear these two words thoughtlessly strung together in a sentence.

You see, I am a survivor of suicide loss. For a long time following my brother's death, I was silent and helpless when I heard people talking ignorantly about him, or people in similar situations. I was suffocated by grief and I didn't know what to say.

The words we use reflect our attitudes, and influence the way other people interpret and feel about the topic at hand. Fundamentally, language matters, especially when discussing issues of suicide and mental health.

The phrase ''committed suicide'' hearkens back to an era when suicide was considered a grave sin or crime. We often talk about people who ''commit murder'' or ''commit a felony''.

In taking his own life, my brother committed no crime.

Put plain and simply, he was suffering beyond comprehension. In saying that someone ''committed suicide'', we are pathologising them, and furthering the horrific stigma surrounding suicide.

Instead, we should use more objective phrasing and people-focused terms, such as ''died by suicide'' or ''took their life''. The phrases ''successful suicide'' or ''unsuccessful suicide'' should also be avoided, because they imply notions of achievement.

It happens every time. A well known, well loved celebrity suddenly dies by suicide, and immediately every single radio station and newspaper kicks into high gear, so rushed to report on the tragedy that they often get things wrong, and end up (albeit unknowingly or unintentionally) reporting in a way that may increase suicide risk.

Research has proven time and time again that gratuitously and salaciously reporting on the means of death, or romanticising or glamorising the death leads to an increase in suicide attempts and deaths in the time following a celebrity's suicide.

It is important that we hold media outlets to high standards of reporting, especially concerning issues of suicide and mental health.

Journalists and others in charge of issuing public communications about suicide can help their readers by providing useful and well researched resources to peruse, such as including links to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, Rainbow Youth and Lifeline.

It is important that those writing about suicide portray help-seeking as a reasonable, if not admirable, course of action.

Writers can, and should, emphasise that suicide can be prevented and treated successfully. They should avoid giving specific details of the tragedy, or in any sense ''normalising'' what has happened. Instead, readers ought to leave the article, news bulletin or memorial post feeling that they can help others who are struggling, or if they are distressed themselves, feeling competent that they can ask for help.

Next time you see your local media employing the term ''committed suicide'', please consider sending a letter or email to your local newspaper or television news station, asking them to use the term ''died by suicide'' instead.

And if suicide comes up in conversation, be it due to a throwaway comment or a news headline, do not shy away from the topic.

It is important that we talk openly, intelligently, accurately, and above all, with compassion, about each and every aspect of suicide.

Fundamentally, talking about suicide does not cause a person to kill themselves, whereas not talking about suicide might. However, it is absolutely imperative that we talk about suicide the right way, especially in the media.

Keeping ''hush-hush'' about issues of mental health and suicide only furthers the shame, silence and stigma surrounding such difficult topics, and makes people feel even more isolated and lonely.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

Need help?

Healthline 0800 611 116
Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Samaritans 0800 726 666
Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797
General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66
The Depression Helpline 0800 111 757


The writer provides the very 'mixed message' that has plagued the "talking about suicide /suicide prevention" confusion.
The fact that "talking about suicide does not cause people to take their lives' is correct. On the other hand "choosing words very carefully" therefore saying nothing is more important.
When questioned, and they have been, the public say "I don't know what to say is case I get it wrong", so they say nothing!
In a medical emergency such as cardiac arrest:.
The key reason , when questioned, why people did not do CRP was that the "might do it wrong", "break some ribs" . The training was that you "had to do it correctly, hands in the correct place, so many times, push down so far and so on".
The fear of doing it "wrong" prevented people taking life saving action. The fact is CRP just needs to be done and the emergency service call takers teach people "how to do CPR in less than a minute".
The mixed messages, such as in the opinion merely perpetuate the myth "best not talk about suicide."

Graham ROPER
Founder/Developer - Psychological First Aid
Advanced Life Support Paramedic.
Lived experience of Suicide.

I think social norms of appropriate behaviour (socialised) cause repression.

If people were allowed to Rage, Scream and Shout without censure, that would be efficacious. Stop repressing human feeling.

Graham, do you really need to gainsay the columnist?