What to Say–and What Not to Say–When You Talk About Suicide
The recent deaths by suicide of fashion icon Kate Spade and culinary world traveler Anthony Bourdain are tragic in and of themselves. But now, experts worry that the news could contribute to additional deaths.
“It’s called the contagion effect,” says Shari Sinwelski, associate director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “When there’s a prominent suicide, we can see more suicides. Sometimes people may already be feeling very vulnerable, and they see someone who they can relate to and their vulnerabilities.”
Suicide rates are already on the rise across the U.S. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than half of states saw an increase in deaths by suicide of more than 30% between 1999 and 2016. But the death of a celebrity–and the accompanying widespread media coverage–may contribute to a spike: One study found that suicides increased almost 10% in the five months after Robin Williams died in 2014.
Talking safely about the subject of suicide can minimize the risk of more people taking their own lives in the wake of a celebrity’s death. Here's how.
How to talk about suicide safely
“Finding the right tenor without glamorizing or blaming is the correct approach,” says Maria A. Oquendo, MD, PhD, past president of the American Psychiatric Association.
That means choosing your words carefully by saying "died by suicide," "took his/her life," "completed suicide," or "killed him/herself" rather than "committed suicide." "That can feel very judgmental like 'committing a sin' or 'committing a crime,'" says Sinwelski.
The alternative phrasing, which is recommended based on input from people who have lost loved ones or who have attempted to take their own lives, is “less stigmatizing,” she adds.
What not to say
First and foremost, experts recommend avoiding mentioning any details of the method used in a suicide. “There’s no reason in the world to publicize the manner in which they did it,” says Joel Dvoskin, PhD, clinical psychologist with the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson. Research suggests that news stories that report in detail on, among other things, the method used, can sensationalize suicide and increase the risk of similar deaths.
Other details like the location of the suicide and the contents of any notes should also be avoided. “That kind of vivid imagery can lead to contagion, especially in young individuals,” says Dr. Oquendo, also chair of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
Saying that a suicide is “inexplicable” or “without warning” is misleading and dangerous. While not everyone who dies by suicide has a known mental illness, according to the CDC, many do, Dr. Oquendo says–and there are other warning signs to watch for as well, including talking about wanting to die, feeling hopeless, withdrawal, and an increase in use of alcohol or drugs.
Focusing only on positive aspects of the deceased person’s life without mentioning their struggles can also glamorize suicide, according to the CDC.
Experts and professional organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), also counsel against referring to suicide as "successful," "unsuccessful," or a "failed attempt."
That doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about it
None of this is to say don’t talk about the subject.
“Oftentimes people worry [that] if you talk about suicide, it will put ideas into people’s heads,” says Dr. Oquendo. Suicide contagion refers to “an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services; there’s no evidence that talking about suicide gives someone who isn’t already vulnerable the idea. “Even in high school populations, we know that it’s perfectly safe to talk to kids about suicide,” Dr. Oquendo adds. “Oftentimes, the kid or adult who is struggling with suicidal thoughts is very relieved.”
When you do talk about suicide, it’s important to acknowledge there is hope. “We like to emphasize that for any one person that dies [by suicide], 287 on average think about suicide and don’t die,” Sinwelski says. “We need to talk about those stories, too.”
“It’s not as hard to help somebody as you might think,” she adds. “A person who’s in that situation wants to feel less alone.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).