Let's Talk About Suicide: #LanguageMatters

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Speaking of how words are used

When most people think of the words useless and worthless, they think ‘of NO use’ and ‘of NO worth’. Personally, I feel those words mean something is of less use or less worth than other things, which is sensible. Is this person’s ability worth nothing when it comes to or compared to someone else’s at something such as being a therapist, or is their ability merely slightly worse, or worth less, or of slightly less use than another therapist? Worthless and useless do not by default mean worth nothing or of no use at all.

Clayton Maurer more than 3 years ago


This is a terrific article explaining why #languagematters and I really appreciate it. I agree completely and I'd like to take it a step further. I've researched depression and suicide seriously since my oldest son, Oscar, died of pediatric suicide in 2015. He was 15. I would really like to hear people refer to suicide as a disease process. We don't say "my son died by pediatric cancer." Same idea with suicide. Many research studies are proving that depression and suicide are chronic inflammatory disease processes. There was a small and exciting study just published out of the University of Manchester in the UK that used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to look at translocator protein (TSPO) in the brains of suicidal vs. non-suicidal patients. TSPO is an indicator of inflammation in the brain. There was a direct correlation between an elevated level of TSPO and suicidality. We need bigger studies like this one to make the progress required to save our children from this devastating disease. If we could look at a patient's brain and definitively know they are suicidal because of increased TSPO levels and then craft an anti-inflammatory treatment for them and measure success by decreased TSPO levels and therefore decreased suicidality then we could save more lives.

Jessica Lane more than 5 years ago


Great article! I was curious as to why the author didn’t include the term ‘suicide contagion’ when describing not to use the term ‘copycat’. While they are not the exact same concept, they seem to be very closely connected and there is research that describes the suicide contagion as a very real phenomenon. Thank you again for this article! Al

Al Levin more than 5 years ago

Important for more fields than SW

As an attempt survivor (numerous times over) I have found that those who are most insensitive tend to be in the healthcare industry. Of course I have met many regular people who make ignorant comments but I find I can forgive (and educate) as they simply do not know better. However, it has been my personal experience with EMT's, ER physicians/nurses, and psychiatric aides that has proven to me time and again that the medical field needs to be doing a better job educating on this topic. I now have my MSW myself and hope to be a part of this shift in language.

Jen more than 5 years ago

Agree with health provider training

Jen, I support your efforts completely and want to encourage you to pursue this path. My son died by suicide after attacking me, violently beating my head. At the ER, in our local Baptist Hospital, I and my family were treated indifferently, got medical care slowly (i was left in the hall on a guerney bleeding for an hour while staff passed repeatedly without so much as glancing at me) and when i was finally seen i was hurriedly stitched up, put in a wheelchair and left for my family to take me outside. No antibiotics prescribed, social work referral, just left with my hair matted in blood. The most awful night of my life. Please help these people understand how to help.

Janice more than 5 years ago


Thank you for this very insightful piece

Jon Underwood more than 5 years ago

Thank you for addressing this vital topic

Thank you for this extremely important article! One of my most meaningful workshops was when I worked with those who lost a loved one due to suicide. I was instructed by all present never to use the term "commit suicide" as this phraseology connoted a crime, rather than a choice. I was told instead by all present to use the verb "to suicide" when discussing this loss -- to say that one "suicided," rather than the more usual descriptive choice of words. I also was reminded again and again that whatever pain we have experienced, those who have lost a beloved through this choice, require a totally different quality of empathy. I learned far more during these three hours than I was able to offer. I listened and did my best to learn. What I learned will ever be with me.
SaraKay Smullens

SaraKay Smullens more than 7 years ago

Article review

Very thought provoking article once again reminding social workers that we need to be very careful of our language, both spoken and silent, and helping us to recognize how we could be hurting the clients we are seeking to empower and edify in our practice. Thank you for this article, I will refer to it again and will revisit many of the statements you made so I don't forget them.

Bonnie Camp more than 7 years ago


Thanks, Bonnie!

SocialWorker.com more than 7 years ago

Interesting article

As a member of the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention's Task Force mentioned in the article I thank you for putting into print what many loss-survivors and attempt-survivors have been mentioning for years! Language does matter!

Tom Kelly more than 7 years ago


Thank you for reading!

SocialWorker.com more than 7 years ago

Thank You Tom!

National Alliance does amazing work and I am glad you enjoyed our article. As a writer/blogger I am also a huge fan of the Action Alliance's "Framework for Safe Messaging" that elevates conversation on the impact language has on reporting on suicide..(http://suicidepreventionmessaging.actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/).

Sean Erreger more than 7 years ago

Where to draw the line

George Carlin famously noted that everybody who drives faster than you is a maniac, whereas everybody who drives slower than you is an idiot. Language operates in much the same way. Anyone who uses a term that you find offensive is insensitive. Anyone who calls you out for using a term they find offensive is too politically correct.

Which makes it difficult to know where to draw the line. Every individual’s line is different.

Bearing that in mind, here are my thoughts.

There were a few points in this article that I agreed with or found highly useful. I've filed away the advice about not asking if someone wants to "hurt" himself/herself, for instance. And I've avoided jokes about wanting to kill myself for years because, after more than one friend made a real attempt, I'm afraid someone will wonder if I'm serious.

Other examples of problematic language use left me scratching my head. It isn’t just that I don’t find them offensive. It’s that I honestly wonder if anyone does, including those people the authors are trying to protect.

Instead of listing all the examples I took issue with, I’ll focus on #7:

<< “Shoots us an e-mail.” This can be a trigger for folks who are attempt survivors or loss survivors. >>

Do you notice anything funny about that one? Let’s try it again:

<< “SHOOTS us an e-mail.” This can be a TRIGGER for folks who are attempt survivors or loss survivors. >>

Many, many PTSD survivors use the latter gun-related term, presumably without being triggered. Victims of gun violence haven’t requested that we all use a different word. If “trigger” doesn’t present a problem, why will “shoot us an e-mail”?

I’m neither a PTSD survivor nor a social worker, so I could be missing something. Maybe the authors have received direct complaints from their clients about the word “shoot.” In the absence of such complaints, however, recommending that people don’t use it seems less like a defense against harm and more like an allergic reaction. When you put your list together, what was your process?

Susan Wenger more than 7 years ago

Re: "trigger

As one of the Co-authors, the spirit of the article was certainly get people to think critically about language (which you have). There are many words associated with specific diagnoses that can certainly give us pause. "Trigger" with PTSD is certainly one of them. We wanted to provide examples in the context of suicide but I am glad it is making people think about other contexts.

Sean Erreger more than 7 years ago

Drawing the line

Susan - So glad you found some value in the article. I had never thought about the similarity between "SHOOTS" and "TRIGGER." Thank you for pointing that out. I included that term because it is something that people at suicide prevention gatherings, particularly those with survivors of suicide loss or attempt survivors, have pointed out as language that is hard to hear.

Jonathan Singer more than 7 years ago

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