The power of words – Should we be talking about suicide?

Trigger warning: frank discussion about suicide.

Recently some prominent figures have died by suicide and subsequently, the media have been reporting their stories. People such as, designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain and reality TV star Sophie Graydon are some of the most recent prominent people who have ended their own lives.

There has been an outpouring of grief and compassion towards these people by most. However, there are still too many people who are extremely ignorant and negative about the pain that these people would have been going through to take such drastic action.

In the immediate aftermath discussions of suicide and suicide awareness skyrocketed but this effect is only ever temporary. Yet today only a month after the media exploded with reports of Kate Spade’s death the discussion has once again disappeared and been swept away. Only to be brought back to the public’s attention when the next famous figure makes the decision that life is just too much.

So, I have to question how do we keep the discussion going?

There is still so much stigma associated with discussing suicide people feel that merely discussing this taboo topic will result in the incidence of suicide increasing. Therefore, researching this topic is difficult, researchers are expected to not cause harm to participant’s and studies need to be approved by ethics committees, so, asking questions that may increase suicide rates are extremely problematic.

However, current research looking at people talking or asking others about suicide have yet to find that there are any significant increases in people ending their own life. In some cases, evidence has shown that asking someone if they have contemplated ending their own life has been beneficial in reducing suicidal ideation [1, 2].

Yes, there has been research that has shown that actively reporting the details and methodology used for suicides has increased the likelihood of copycat behaviour, known as modelling in the psychology world [3].

Which is why several media guidelines have been prepared as the media’s portrayal of suicide can influence copycat behaviour under particular circumstances. One set of guidelines – the Mental Health Media Charter details the best way to report mental health issues. This charter is probably one of the most accessible for media outlets and bloggers alike because it is short and to the point.

The Mental Health Book Club Podcast is actively trying to raise awareness of mental health and associated issues including suicide and its prevention.

I have been there, not only have I at times experienced suicidal ideation (which I have to admit is much less these days) and my own attempts at taking my own life, I have come to realise that regardless of people discussing the topic I would have made the same decision. Maybe if someone had raised the question, and depending on who they were, I may or may not have felt comfortable enough to discuss my feelings. Even if I hadn’t, I would have at least realised that someone had noticed my distress (although I had become extremely adept at hiding it).

So, keep talking mental health, my next post will be about ways to talk about suicide with others.

[1] Dazzi, T.  Gribble, R.  Wessely S. and Fear, N. T. (2014) Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine 44: 3361-3363

[2] DeCou  C.R.  Schumann M.E. (2017) On the Iatrogenic Risk of Assessing Suicidality: A Meta‐Analysis, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behav. doi:10.1111/sltb.12368

[3] Definition of modelling (2018)

[4] Perkis, J. and Blood, W. (2010) Suicide and the news and information media: A critical review,-Suicide-and-the-news-and-information-media.pdf

The power of words – Should we be conscious of the words we use when talking about mental health?

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Words have power, you only have to think back to your time in the playground and someone used words to bully you. I don’t know about your parents but mine constantly reminded me that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me, was a complete lie.

Those words still hurt me today over 25 years later and pop back into my mind when I am feeling particularly low.

Applying this to everyday life I am beginning to realise that the words I am using when I talk about mental health may need some conscious thought. I don’t want to offend, I don’t want to cause other’s distress and I don’t want to feel the shame associated with causing someone else to feel bad. I equally don’t want to be adding to the stigma associated with mental health.

So here are my top tips I am going to apply when I am talking about mental health (including my own) for what I have learnt so far:

  • The way mental health is discussed is constantly changing – the words that may have been used to describe a situation in the past are not necessarily the most descriptive or accurate now, it is our responsibility to look at what words are being used and if we agree with their use.
  • Mindful discussions of mental health – we need to be conscious about what we say, think about the consequences of the words before they come out but also don’t bet yourself up if someone challenges you as it is another opportunity for us to learn
  • Tone – the way we say things is equally important to the use of words if you use a particular tone that can be observed as being insincere or dismissive means that no matter what you are saying the discussion could be harming others.
  • Word choice – now this is often extremely difficult, what words can be used? In what context are you using them? We wouldn’t say “I feel so cancer filled today” but people do say “I am so depressed today because [insert sports team] lost their game last night.” It shows flippancy and fails to understand the full extent of depression. I hold my hands up and admit that I am guilty of such things, such as making statements like “I think Laurence is on the Autistic Spectrum” or “don’t be so OCD” without fully understanding the implications.
  • Honesty – if you are not sure about something then ask, if you are talking to someone about their mental health then they will probably feel like you are respecting them by acknowledging you don’t know everything. I don’t know how many times I have tried to explain borderline personality disorder to someone – I never take offence I am often flattered that the individual feels able to ask.

I think I will add to this over time, as well as additional information on the do’s and don’ts of writing characters in fiction with mental health conditions (although I am struggling with feeling qualified enough to make such a list) but I can identify my opinions about what I prefer when reading fiction!