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Ask The Experts | How to talk about suicide

By September 11, 2020March 9th, 2021No Comments
How to talk about suicide

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month – and that brings up a key question: How should we talk about suicide? 

Ask the Experts posed that question to Jamie Pfister, a public health professional and KidsPeace educator who has written extensively about addressing suicide in our culture.


Suicide is a complicated topic, and while there has been an increase in attention and support for mental health services, the stigma around suicide still exists. So what can we do to help combat this stigma? Raise your voice! 

The first step towards reducing the stigma around suicide is to talk about suicide.  And paying attention to the language we use and maintaining open dialogue with those at risk will decrease stigma and save lives. Otherwise we will lose more to the silence.  

Here are some helpful hints when discussing suicide with others. 

  • Never describe suicide as:
    • Selfish
    • Stupid
    • Cowardly or weak
    • A choice or “the easy way out”
    • A sin (or that the person is going to hell) 

Actually- just leave the shaming language out of it all together! 

  • Avoid using terminology such as:
    • “Committed”
    • “Successful/Unsuccessful”
    • “Failed attempt”
    • “Suicide gesture”

This terminology implies that suicide has a positive end goal, rather than focusing on the pain that the individual is feeling.

  • Instead, use the correct terminology
    • “Died by suicide”
    • “Took his/her/their own life” 
  • Steer clear from describing risk factors for suicide as 
    • Inexplicable
    • Without warning
    • Attributed to one single event

Risk factors may be very difficult to predict, but not impossible.  Instead, educate yourself and others on the risk factors for suicide or the verbal and behavioral cues for suicide.

  • Avoid sharing specific details about the suicide including:
    • The method used
    • Images of the means
    • Graphic depictions of the event
    • Details about the location
    • Sharing notes left behind
  • Try to avoid referring to suicide as 
    • “A growing problem” 
    • “Epidemic”
    • “Skyrocketing”

When media sensationalizes or glamourizes suicide it may put those already at risk, at an even greater risk. Instead, refer to suicide as a public health issue and make sure you have accurate and reliable statistics.

  • Try to avoid promising that it’s going to get better. Instead:
    • Convey that their suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be reduced and eliminated
    • Share a hopeful, supportive message with individuals in crisis

You may not be able to take away their pain, but offering them hope can keep them alive.

  • DO: Provide Lifeline information.  If you or someone you know is in crisis:
    • Do not leave that person alone
    • Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • Or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741

Seek help — you do NOT have to go about this alone!

  • Things that you CAN say to a person who may be going through a suicide crisis
    • “Are you OK?”
    • “Do you need anything?”
    • “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
    • “How can I support you?”
    • “Will you let me get you help?”
    • “I want you to be here.”


Helpful Definitions: (from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention at 

  • Suicide: A death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.
  • Suicide Attempt: A nonfatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. 
  • Suicide Attempt Survivor: An individual who survived an attempted suicide. 
  • Suicide Ideation: Thinking about, considering or planning suicide.
  • Suicide Loss Survivor (also referred to as Survivor of Loss): A family member, friend or loved one of an individual that died by suicide.

For further information on risk factors for suicide, seek out 

Jamie Pfister, MPH

Jamie Pfister holds a master’s degree in public health, and is a Trauma Focused Program & Staff Development Specialist at KidsPeace.