• Sara Fender

Let's Change the Way We Talk About Suicide

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Increasing awareness has to do with decreasing the stigma of experiencing mental health issues and getting help for those issues.

In today’s post, I want to talk about suicide. Suicide has deeply embedded stigma. This compounds the pain of anyone who has survived a suicide attempt or for family and friends of people who have died by suicide. Shame and isolation are common results of experiencing the stigma of suicide.


Did you know that one in every six persons experiences suicidal thoughts in their lifetime? It’s more common than many believe it to be, and it is not solely linked to depression. Persons experiencing anxiety and panic disorders, major and/or unexpected life adjustments, post traumatic stress symptoms, Bipolar conditions, unmanageable stress, chronic health conditions, schizophrenia, some personality disorders, and substance abuse conditions may have increased suicide risk.


I agree with the trend in the mental health field that we need to change the way the majority culture views suicide. It’s long been weighed down with judgmental attitudes, and often intertwined with unhelpful spiritual beliefs. Many see suicide as a sign of weakness, a “choice” in the simplest sense (like how we choose what we want for dinner), taking the easy way out, or special kind of unforgivable sin. Suicide is difficult to understand, but I argue that many of these underlying beliefs about suicide directly relate to our natural human desire to make sense of something that we ultimately cannot make sense of.


So how can we be better at talking about suicide? Start by changing the language, which can help change underlying beliefs about suicide. Changing the language can change the message we tell to ourselves, and more importantly, change the message we give to those who are suffering because they’ve encountered suicide in their lives.


Mental health advocates are trying to do just this: instead of “commit suicide” which holds negative connotations, start saying “died by suicide.” Or better yet…

I follow a writer/blogger whose son recently died by suicide. I caught my breath in my chest when I read her words describing her son’s death by suicide: “he lost his life to mental illness.” (I’m not going to reference her here, even though she’s blogged about it. Too private and tender a thing). I’ve yet to hear anything more beautiful and helpful in reshaping the way we describe the act of suicide in our culture. We reference all other kinds of deaths in this way, “he lost his battle with cancer.”, “she lost her life in a tragic car accident.” Suicide is a direct result of mental health issues, like any other illness. Suicide is a tragedy, just like any other form of traumatic death or accident.


How did she die? She lost her life to mental illness. She died by suicide. She died from a battle with depression.


How did she die? She committed suicide.


Do you see, and, more importantly, feel the difference? Imagine you are talking about someone you love. Imagine you are listening to someone talk about someone you love. Which is tender, respectful, honoring? The answer is clear to me.


I listened to a podcast about suicide, where the host says, “The way a person dies becomes a reason to respect them less.” Isn’t that the ugly truth? Is suicide complicated, sad, difficult to understand? Yes, of course. Yet why does it change how we see the person who died? I experienced this in my own life when two close friends died by murder-suicide. Suddenly, it seemed their lives were defined by the way they died, which had nothing to do with who they actually were in life.


Changing how we view suicide and how we talk about it isn’t necessarily easy. With dedication and intentional practice, we can fight the deeply embedded collective beliefs we have about suicide. We can begin to change those beliefs, while also supporting suicide survivors and the friends and family of people who have tragically lost their lives to mental illness in more helpful and compassionate ways.


If you are challenged to learn more from personal experiences, start by listening to podcasts #48 and #49 of Terrible, Thanks for Asking and check out the resources provided at the podcast links.

*Language Disclaimer* The podcasts are real and raw, and unedited.


5 Common Myths About Suicide and Suicide Facts at a Glance


If you or someone you care about is experiencing a mental health crisis, do one of the following:

  • Call your local mental health crisis line

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255)

  • Go to the nearest hospital emergency room

  • Call your doctor or your mental health provider (if they are on call for emergencies)

  • Call 9-1-1

Sara Fender is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Intern, working in private practice in Gladstone, Oregon. She holds a Master's Degree in Counseling from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. Sara provides counseling services to adults and older teens experiencing a variety of common life challenges, with a special interest in grief, loss, and life transitions. Sara is dedicated to providing a voice for mental health and wellness through direct services, education, and community involvement. To contact Sara, email her at counselingwithsaraf@gmail.com or visit www.sarafender.com


This post was originally published on 5/24/19 at https://www.breakthroughfamilycounseling.com/blog