The Language of Suicide: A Different Perspective

No one disputes that depression is part of a number of mental illnesses. Some illnesses are situationally or environmentally caused, and are temporary in nature, like a ‘mental pneumonia’. And some can be more organic or genetically based with environmental triggers like; heart attack. or stroke. or diabetes. And no one disputes that depression can be fatal. But when it does become fatal its name is changed to “suicide”, and it is treated as a choice. But the words that are used to discuss what is now called suicide, can change every perception we have about it. A new perspective can change: how interventions are handled; how recovery is guided, how grief is processed and, how stigma is unveiled. Seeing it as ‘had’ a suicide, not ‘committed’ suicide makes all the difference in the world. Seeing suicide as something that happens “to” someone like a heart attack or a stroke, instead of something someone “does” like mow the lawn, is all that it takes. History has only provided us with phrases like: ‘committed’ suicide or ‘attempted’ suicide. But at that very moment, in the course of a Catastrophic Depressive Episode, can we really, truly believe that an individual is capable of rationally forming the intent to end their own life? How can we acknowledge a mental illness: an illness happening to someone – then hold that person responsible for the actions caused by that illness? How can we acknowledge an illness, then hold its host responsible for its symptoms? Is that right? Is that fair? Is that accurate? As cursing is a symptom of Turret’s and shaking is a symptom of Parkinson’s, self-inflicted injuries are a symptom of an illness, DEPRESSION, and is not a choice, but a challenge, like cancer. However, with this type of self-inflicted injury, treatment lies in learning the early signs of depression. Self-examination allows us to become capable of seeking help, facilitating the early interventions that saves lives. Maintenance, then, becomes the biggest obstacle to mental health. If the language of Catastrophic Depressive Episodes and Self-Inflicted Injuries makes sense to you (which it hopefully does) then when you use it, it may change someone else’s perception as well, and we won’t call it “suicide” any more.


The Truth About Suicide

In 2015, there were 44,193 deaths2, at least 383,000 visits to E.R.s4 and another estimated 1.4 million survivors3 of self-inflicted injuries, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States2 and the only one trending upward; ahead of homicides and automobile crashes.2 This must be a national priority!

While some experts put this figure much higher, studies have shown: “More than 90% of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder...”1.

If over 90% suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, isn’t it happening to them, not something they are doing? Isn’t it time we stop blaming the victim and start treating them like patients rather than criminals?  To reduce deaths from self-inflicted injuries, we must recognize and address Catastrophic Depressive Episodes with compassion and understanding. No one really wants to die.

  1. Conwell Y, Brent D. Suicide and aging I: patterns of psychiatric diagnosis. International Psychogeriatrics, 1995; 7(2): 149-64.
  2. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, NSDUH Series H-49, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4887. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 2014.
  4. National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2013 Emergency Summary Tables. Table 16


When suicide is recognized as a Catastrophic Depressive Episode, then…

…those at risk will be relieved of any guilt or shame, able to identify their symptoms earlier, clearing the way for them to seek help, saving lives.


…those responding to a crisis can reach out with even more effective tools to bring souls back from the brink, saving even more lives.

 …those undergoing a Catastrophic Depressive Episode will be able to see that thoughts of ending their life are an emotional response not of their own making or choosing but are caused by an illness, where choice can be restored.

…those who have lost someone to the disease can mourn the tragedy instead of being victimized by it, relieved of the anger and guilt that produces the depression that so often accompanies the bereavement.

…those close to a survivor of a Catastrophic Depressive Episode will be able to see their loved one as an injured party and not as a perpetrator; able to care for them with empathy and compassion instead of blame.

…those who have survived a Catastrophic Depressive Episode will know that there is a path to recovery; to purpose and; to hope.

It changes the victim’s intuitive response to fight, not flight, by employing  interventions that change the victim’s focus from what they are doing, to what is happening to them.


Myths About Suicide                                                                                                              Suicides are a white middle class problem.  –  People who talk about suicide don’t do it. Talking about suicide can plant the idea.  –   Suicide survivors will not attempt again.          Suicidal people will always be suicidal.  –  People who have suicides leave notes.  –   Telling someone to cheer up will help.   –  Suicidal people suffer from psychosis.       People who are suicidal want to die.   –  Only adults can get truly depressed.  –  A suicide always has warning signs.  –   Depressed people always feel sad.  –  A suicide is a way to get attention.  –  Only others commit suicide.   –  A suicide is just plain crazy.   –  You cannot stop a suicide.   –  A suicide is manipulative.   –  A suicide is a cry for help.  –            A suicide is a weakness.  –  A suicide is an impulse.  –  A suicide is cowardly.  –  A suicide is revenge.  –   A suicide is selfish.  –  A suicide can never happen to me!


Signs of Depression                                                                                                                              Feeling helpless.  –  Feeling hopeless.  –   Feeling worthless. –  Feeling like a burden.  – Feeling inordinate guilt or shame.  –    Feeling lethargic or loss of energy.  –  Giving away prized or valued possessions.  –  Withdrawing from friends and family.  –  Losing interest in favorite activities.  –   Changes in personal hygiene.  –  Unexplained crying.


Can What We Say Change How We Think?

In short: Can the language we use when we discuss what we call suicide change how we perceive suicide? Is our current perception somehow off the mark? Is there something we’re missing that can completely change the way we perceive and understand the event?

We need to discuss what that language is now and why we should change it. We need to discuss which new language we can use, and, what can happen when we do.

For the thesis, I decided to use the collective first person, “we” because: I entered the conversation in December of 2008 when I survived my own traumatic depressive episode, and; the conversation includes you: if not now, it will.

The need for new language concerning what we call suicide was exposed during my own “recovery” (another word I have issue with, but not now), and presented itself with conflicts from everything from “consumer vs. client” to “loss survivor vs. attempt survivor”. (And with apologies; I still don’t understand that one.)

The thesis on the language of what we call suicide states that: by changing the language we use in discussing what we call suicide we can change everything we perceive about the event, the victim and their bereaved, thereby changing everything that happens regarding what we call suicide including; how we approach someone in a crisis; their course of treatment, its frequency of occurrence, and; the damage done to those bereft of their loved ones by the event.

History has only given us phrases like: committed suicide; attempted suicide; failed suicide; the most egregious, successful suicide, and; the bluntest and most off the mark of phrases, “He chose to kill himself”.

But is that right? Is that fair?

Is that accurate?

Is this really a choice or is there some other force afoot?

Is there an illness, a disease; responsible for what we are seeing?

Can what is alleged to be an act, actually be a symptom?

It’s up to you to decide what you think.

Because nobody actually knows; because nobody can actually give a definitive answer; because everyone is entitled to an informed opinion, it’s up to you to decide what you think.

I will only make the case.

No one has to ask about the difference between the lungs and the air; no one has to ask about the difference between the heart and the blood; but when it has to do with the difference between the brain and the mind, it’s not quite as simple.

In the end, it will be up to you to decide what you think.

And that’s the point: if we change the language we use to discuss what we call suicide, can we change what we think about what we call suicide?

Can language changing the event from a thoughtful, purposeful act to an event that happens to someone make that much difference? Can that be true?

Hopefully, that idea strikes a chord with you.

Hopefully, if it does strike a chord with you, you’ll bump into a situation where changing the words you use changes someone else’s perception of what we call suicide.

And we won’t call it suicide any more.