Changing the language around suicide.

There appears to be a meaningful change in how we talk about suicide and mental health. So, I was more than a little surprised to see a video news report from a regional TV network that used the term “committed” suicide. I emailed them and suggested, as do most individuals and organisations involved in suicide prevention, that they use terms such as died by suicide or took their own life. Someone may commit murder or commit a robbery but they do not commit suicide. To their credit they responded quickly and appropriately. It has left me wondering how often is this  still happening?

A quick look around social media answered that question very quickly. An inspirational article about post- partum depression which used the language “committed” suicide had 35,923 shares to date. Of the numerous comments, not one made a mention of the language used. So why is that? I am suggesting one of two reasons. Firstly, that the term is so common and embed into our language that we don’t notice it. Or secondly that to make a comment about the language used could be interpreted as being heartless and missing the whole point of the article. I have to admit I couldn’t think of any way to bring up the language issue diplomatically, especially as a male who has not  experienced that particular form of depression.

Some of you may be wondering, why is the language around suicide important. Research suggests the media has a huge influence on how social issues are perceived, especially around mental health. The Executive Director of Sane Australia states, “The media is a principle source of information for the community and has a major role in influencing community attitudes towards mental illness” A recent study by Arendt (2018) suggested using a neutral term in news reports about suicide, increased the usage of that term. This effect was also shown to operate in reverse. They suggest using terms such as “fatal suicide attempt” as opposed to “successful suicide”. Among their conclusions are, that the language recommendations proposed by experienced suicide advocates has a positive influence on attitudes towards suicide.

It has always concerned me that any individual is in so much mental and emotional pain that taking their own life seems like the only alternative. It is a permanent solution to a what is often a temporary problem. Particularly distressing is the younger age groups who may not have the life experience to know that circumstances change (e.g. situational depression) and that there is a great deal of help and resources available for continuing mental health issues (e.g. chronic depression). Changing the language may at least to some degree change the cultural and societal perspectives on suicide. Anything that leads to removing the stigma of mental health and suicide can only help people who are suffering to speak up and seek assistance. One of the major myths about suicide is that openly discussing it might encourage or normalise it. Often a person who is thinking about ending their life feels they cannot or should not mention it, so being open about suicide can give them an opportunity to explore alternative options and create a safety plan.

If you or anyone you know is at risk of self-harm or suicide then please follow this link to the Australian Mental Health Helplines website. International readers can use this link Global Mental Health Resources for a list of helpline numbers. If there is imminent risk of harm, then please call the emergency services in your region.

Wishing you all the best in your journey

Phil Miranda

Sources: ( Arendt (2018) The role of language in suicide reporting: Investigating the influence of problematic suicide referents.  Social Science & Medicine 208 165–171 )  (   ( 

I know how you feel ?

How often do we hear or say those words, “I know how you feel” when speaking to someone about a life challenge they or we are currently dealing with? It could be the loss of a loved one, a job, a relationship or any number of life events. Used in the correct context those words can be a powerful emotional panacea. They can create a sense of connection and understanding when an individual realises someone understands their pain. It becomes a problem when used out of context or it is based on an assumption. Let me give an example. How often have you heard or even been involved in a conversation like this?

“Yeh, I am having a really tough time at the moment. I lost my job a few months ago and if I don’t find a new one soon I may not have anywhere to live”

“I know how you feel, they cut my overtime at work and I may have to sell one of my investment properties”

Or this classic:

“I am really sad because one of my closest friends died yesterday”

“I know how you feel, my dog died last year “

The second one is in no way meant to minimise the loss of a beloved pet, but it does highlight how assumptions can be made. Loss and grief can have varying degrees of intensity given an individual’s resilience and life situation. Losing a pet may well be as traumatic for some people as losing a close friend but to include it in a conversation with someone who is grieving the loss of a human being is, in my opinion, not helpful.

While the two examples are extreme, have we not all at some time been guilty of doing that to varying degrees. I know I have at times made inappropriate comparisons or assumptions about how someone is feeling or what a life event means for them. Case in point, many years ago a lady told me she was pregnant. My reaction was, “that is great news”. Turns out it wasn’t. Her and her husband were not ready financially or emotionally to have a child. I made an assumption about how she felt.

Looking back at that example and other similar interactions I have learnt albeit slowly, not to assume “I know how you feel” but to instead ask something like, “that’s big news, how are you feeling about it “. That gives the opportunity to find out exactly how they feel rather than assuming I already know.

So why is this important? It has been said that life is about relationships and I believe at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is people. Being able to engage with someone and truly understand them is not only powerful in enhancing connection but also great therapy for our own mental health. To be there for someone in spite of your own issues and to focus outward instead of inward can be very healing. I remember listening to a taped A.A recording quite a while ago where the speaker said “everyone tells you when you are emotionally unwell, get with your feelings, I say get with someone else’s feelings, yours will fall right into place”.

I know how it feels to grieve, to experience pain or loss as well as the myriad of emotions we all experience as human beings. I know how it affects me and what I think may be helpful. However, I don’t know how you feel, why don’t you tell me?

Wishing you all the best in your journey

Phil Miranda