How to talk about suicide

The day after Christmas, Mercer County Sheriff’s Officer Pablo Santiago took his own life. Just two weeks earlier, a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South died by suicide. And this fall, a freshman at Princeton High School attempted to take his life, but he was located first. These are just a few of the suicides or attempts that have taken place In Mercer County recently. People have been commenting frequently on social media regarding the deaths of the officer and the student. The deaths and the comments on social media prompted us to write this post.

It is important to talk about suicide and remove the stigma in order for our society to address the problem. The main message we want to get across: How you talk and write about suicide matters.

Suicide is a national public health crisis. At the end of November, the CDC released the most recent data related to suicide in the U.S. for 2017. According to the new data, suicide remains the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and the rate of suicide in 2017 increased by 4.9 percent. In 2016, the last year the CDC released mortality data, there were 44,965 suicide deaths. In 2017, there were 47,173 deaths, an increase of 2,208 additional deaths. An estimated 90 percent of suicides in the United States are associated with mental illness or a substance use disorder. 

Suicide is not a crime, and it is preventable. You can communicate in ways that give people hope, and help them realize that they can make it through difficult times and recover.

Avoid stigmatizing terminology when you talk or write about suicide, including: Committed suicide, successful suicide, completed suicide, failed attempt at suicide, and unsuccessful suicide.

Use appropriate terminology including: Died by suicide, ended his/her life, took his/her life, attempted to end his/her life.

If you write a post about suicide on a website, blog, Facebook group, or other social media channels, always include a suicide prevention hotline referral phone number and information about crisis intervention services. Following are some top resources:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255), connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed.
  • For the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line, call 1-800-273-8255 and then press 1.
  • You can also use a free text-message service for 24/7 support. Text START to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor right away.
  • Call The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young people under 25.

Don’t post or write in ways that sensationalize the suicide. Don’t post photos of grieving family, friends, memorials, or funerals. Don’t quote from a suicide note, or detail the method used.

Don’t make generalizations about suicide, and don’t speculate about the cause of the suicide, or try to pinpoint one reason why a person decided to take his or her own life. The reasons are often complex. Not only could your information be wrong or misleading, but it could also do harm to others, including the loved ones of the person who took his/her own life and others in crisis who may be contemplating death by suicide. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated.

Most people who die by suicide exhibit warning signs. Don’t describe a suicide as “sudden”, “inexplicable” or “without warning.” Warning signs, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

If you think a friend or family member will hurt himself/herself or someone else, call 911. Local police are trained to help and refer people to the appropriate organizations and resources. Following are some other tips from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
  • Calmly ask simple and direct questions like “Can I help you call your psychiatrist?” rather than, “Would you rather I call your psychiatrist, your therapist or your case manager?”
  • Talk openly and honestly about suicide. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Do you have a plan for how you would kill yourself?”
  • If there are multiple people trying to help the person, have one person speak at a time.
  • Ask what you can do to help.
  • Don’t argue, threaten or raise your voice.
  • Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong.
  • If your loved one asks for something, provide it, as long as the request is safe and reasonable.
  • If you are nervous, try not to fidget or pace.
  • If your loved one is having hallucinations or delusions, be gentle and sympathetic, but do not get in an argument about whether the delusions or hallucinations are real.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has identified five issues that need to be addressed to tackle the national crisis:

  • Cultural attitudes about help seeking need to improve, as does the ability to have caring, informed conversations to proactively improve resilience and mental health.
  • People must be able to access affordable, comprehensive health care, including mental health care that specifically addresses suicide prevention.
  • Primary care physicians and other health care providers need to be trained in how to better screen for mental health and suicide risk. Mental health clinicians need more training about how to detect risk and provide lifesaving treatment.
  • Reduce access to lethal means at a population level, including firearms and toxic substances, by those at risk, which has been proven to reduce suicide rates.
  • Collect more accurate data across the country about suicides and suicide attempts. This past year the National Violent Death Reporting System was expanded to all 50 states, which was the next critical step in gathering accurate national information about suicide.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center
NAMI New Jersey
Mental Health Association in New Jersey
New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addictions Agencies, Inc.
Cop2Cop Helpline
New Jersey Hopeline
TLC4TeensTraumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth
Attitudes on Reverse (local organization offering mental health education and awareness programs at schools)

One Comment

  1. > Avoid stigmatizing terminology when you talk or write about suicide, including: Committed suicide, successful suicide, completed suicide, failed attempt at suicide, and unsuccessful suicide.

    Are people, everyday folks not the media, who use that terminlogy intentionally attempting to stigmatise suicide, or are they just attempting to communication information?

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