Words carry weight. If we want to make strides in reducing mental health stigma, a good place to start is examining our vocabulary ― even if what we say comes out of concern or with good intentions.
“What we say to someone makes a difference in life and when we are talking to someone who is struggling with thoughts of death and dying, our choice of language is even more important,” said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “We want to be compassionate, caring and sensitive.”
This is especially true when talking to a loved one about self-harm or suicide. What we say can have a direct impact on how safe a person feels speaking up about what they’re going through (either to you or in general) and how severe it is.
Below are some harmful phrases people often use related to suicide and advice on what to say instead.
“There’s so much to live for” or “it’ll get better if you fight.”
These responses are meant to be words of encouragement for someone, but the assertions “may not hold true for them,” said Racine Henry, a therapist and owner of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy in New York.
A byproduct of suicidal ideations or thoughts of self-harm is the belief that the world would be better off without you; someone may not think there is much to live for or that things will get better (even if that isn’t the case).
“There are so many other people who have it worse.”
Comparisons of people’s pain are useless at best and harmful at worst. It’s like telling someone who is having a heart attack, “Well, there are people dying of cancer right now.”
Statements like this “are demeaning and dismissive,” Reidenberg said. “They minimize other people’s pain and are judgmental.” They completely ignore how mental health problems are real health problems.
“That’s selfish” or “that’s crazy.”
The same holds true for calling suicide selfish, crazy or any other negative term, Reidenberg said. It’s minimizing and doesn’t acknowledge the real pain your loved ones or friends are experiencing.
“We want to be free of our own biases about suicide and mental health and be right there for them in that moment of complete darkness and despair. We don’t want to judge someone,” he said.
Here are positive and useful ways we can talk about mental health, self-harm and suicide.
First, we shouldn’t be scared to talk about these topics. If you believe someone is struggling, bringing it up isn’t going to increase their risk.
“The most important advice is to have a caring conversation. The evidence has clearly demonstrated that talking about suicide does not cause suicide,” Colleen Carr, the deputy director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, previously told HuffPost. “Instead, talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can increase hope and help someone on their journey to recovery.”
When we’re talking with someone considering self-harm or suicide, or has a history of these thoughts, we should really acknowledge their experience. Something like, “I’m sorry you are hurting in such a profound way and I understand that you desperately want relief from the pain” can be validating, Henry said.
“The best thing you can do to help is just be there and let that person know that you are there to help and support them,” added Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students. “For many people, feeling supported is just what they need.”
Horne suggested using the V-A-R (validate, appreciate, refer) method for these conversations:
V: Validate their feelings by letting them know that what they’re going through is OK and that you believe them.
A: Appreciate their honesty and courage, since speaking up can be difficult for many people. Recognize that what they’re doing is difficult.
R: Refer them to resources and other professional support. Let them know help is available (here’s a great list of places to start).
We also need to learn ― and relay ― that one conversation isn’t suddenly going to shift the tide. Convey to someone living with thoughts of self-harm that “you don’t have to be happy tomorrow and you aren’t wrong for how you currently feel,” Henry said.
Finally, we need to incorporate compassionate mental health language into our daily lives. What we say certainly matters when we’re talking with someone who is going through a hard time, but it also is important in our everyday conversations.
We can do this by eliminating mental health-related terms and colloquialisms from our vernacular. For example, not saying, “I wanna jump off a bridge,” or “I’m gonna kill myself” when something goes wrong. We wouldn’t use another fatal illness as a dramatic way to make a point ― mental health problems deserve the same consideration.
How we talk about mental health certainly won’t solve suicide or self-harm (for that we need a systemic overhaul of our health care system, food access, housing systems, treatment access ... the list goes on). But it will make it a little easier for people to feel comfortable coming forward about how they’re feeling. That’s always a good place to start.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.