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Safe Messaging

The ‘language’ surrounding suicide has changed over the past two decades.  Unfortunately, most people are not aware of these changes in how we talk about suicide. We know words have the power to heal, but they also have the power to do harm. Words, whether they are unintentional or not, can bring out stigma and influence our attitudes and how we feel about suicide. These attitudes and words may impact those who are having thoughts of suicide to not get the help that they desperately need.

The biggest change relates to how to refer to suicide as a cause of death.  In the past, terms such as “committed suicide” or “completed suicide” have been widely used and are continuing to to be used today. The words, “commit/committed” may imply that an act is criminal or may be looked at as a mortal sin in many religions. Suicide at one point was considered a crime in

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communities across our country but that idea is now considered outdated. The use of the word “completed” can imply that an act has been accomplished or successful, often sending the message that suicide is a task to be accomplished. These words are not considered helpful when discussing suicide.

Other changes include the way we sometimes use “successful or unsuccessful” in regard to someone dying by suicide or someone who attempts suicide. These words again may imply that the person who died by suicide has accomplished or not accomplished (a failure) the act of suicide. Again, we use “died by suicide” instead of successful attempt or we use “suicide attempt” as someone who has attempted suicide.  Focus on providing factual and direct language that is judgment-free of the person or the situation.

Say this
Instead of this
Working with someone in crisis
Dealing with suicidal crisis
(Describe the behavior)
Manipulative, cry for help, or suicidal gesture
Person living with thoughts of suicide
Suicide ideator or attempter
Suicide attempt
Unsuccessful attempt
Died by Suicide/Suicide death
Successful attempt
Died by Suicide
Committed/Completed Suicide

Safe Messaging is more than just what we say when speaking directly with someone. It's also about what we share on social media and various news outlets. We should ask ourselves some questions before posting or reporting on a suicide.

Did I...

  • Use preferred language? (e.g., “died by suicide” or “took his/her own life;” not “committed suicide”)  

  • Use objective, non-sensationalistic language to describe the suicide death?

  • Exclude details about method, location, notes or photos from the scene?

  • Focus on the life of the person versus the death and method?

  • Frame suicide as a preventable form of death?

  • Indicate that suicide is always caused by multiple factors?

  • Convey that suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not weaknesses or flaws and can be reduced with support and treatment?

  • Ensure all links contain reliable information?

  • Consult a mental health or suicide prevention expert?

  • Include a list of suicide warning signs and local resources for those in crisis? 

Adapted from MHA Ohio - Reporting on Suicide

We all play a role in helping to reduce the stigma of suicide. Changing how we talk about it is a good place to start.

Other Recommended Links

"The Journey of Learning to Tell My Story"

The idea of sharing the story of losing our loved one can be overwhelming. Trying to decide what to say and what NOT to say can leave us feeling woefully unequiped. In this short essay, Denise Meine-Graham shares from her personal experiences - both good and bad. She also includes some simple do's for when you are ready to share your story.

Click the button below to download "The Journey of Learning to Tell My Story..."

Helpful Definitions

Suicide Attempt Survivor

A person who has attempted suicide, but did not die.

Suicide Loss Survivor

A person who has lost a family member, friend, classmate, or colleague to suicide. Sometimes called “suicide survivor,” although the term “suicide loss survivor” is often favored to avoid confusion with “suicide attempt survivor.”

Safe Messaging

Media or personal communications about suicide or related issues that do not increase the risk of suicidal behavior in vulnerable people, and that may increase help-seeking behavior and support for suicide prevention efforts. 

Lived Experience

“Knowledge gained from having lived through a suicide attempt or suicidal crisis.”

[National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force. (2014). The way forward: Pathways to hope, recovery, and wellness with insights from lived experience. Washington, D.C.: National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.]

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