Suicide awareness | The language of suicide and how to approach the conversation

Suicide is still a taboo subject that many of us find difficult to talk about. When we do have these conversations, our choice of language matters. Below, Nuffield Health Mental Health Prevention Lead Lisa Gunn explains how to approach the conversation of suicide using compassionate and understanding language.

When to seek help

Information contained in this article may be triggering for some.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideations, seek help immediately using one of the helplines listed below:

  • Samaritans: call 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
  • You can also text 'SHOUT' to 85258 if struggling to cope. 
  • SANEline: call 0300 304 7000 (16:30 – 22:00 every day of the year)
  • National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK: 0800 689 5652 (6 pm to midnight every day)
  • A full list of NHS emergency helplines 

Crisis support can be obtained 24/7 by phoning 111. In the event of an emergency, please phone 999 or attend A&E for 24-hour emergency help with suicidal ideas if required. 

The language of suicide

The language we use when discussing suicide matters. Some of the language that was once deemed appropriate when talking about suicide is now outdated and stigmatising. This is due to changes in social standards and norms, and the decriminalisation of suicide which occurred in 1961.

This is especially important when talking with somebody who has been affected by or attempted suicide in the past. Our choice of words can have an impact on the overall tone of the conversation and serve to reinforce the subject as taboo or off limits.

For example, avoid using terminology like committed, successful or unsuccessful, completed or failed. Instead, choose words and phrases like “died by suicide” or “suicided”. If in doubt, avoid potentially problematic verbs altogether and use “ended or took”.

Why language matters so much

The choice of words we use when talking about suicide and mental health more generally can have a negative impact on the direction of conversation and on the risk level for the individual concerned.

Some old words and phrases are so entrenched in our vocabulary that most of us don’t stop and think about the effect they can have on a person experiencing thoughts of suicide.

Avoid words like… Say this instead Why?
Committed Died by suicide, took their own life, lost their life, death by suicide. The word commit reinforces the stigmatization that suicide is a negative or selfish act. The origins of the word association come from the criminalization of the act which was abolished in 1961.
“x” is suicidal “x” is dealing with suicidal thoughts or experiencing suicidal tendencies. An individual shouldn’t be defined by their relationship to suicide.
Unsuccessful or successful Lived through suicide or survived a suicide attempt. Died by suicide or a fatal suicide attempt. Both words attach a positive end goal to the idea of taking one’s life.

How to approach the conversation

Suicide can be difficult to talk about, especially if you have recognised a change of behaviour in another person. You may feel like you’re overreacting or that bringing up the topic of suicide will upset them.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask about risk: a common misconception is that asking about the topic of suicide may give someone the idea that it’s a plausible or good idea. The opposite is in fact true. Often talking about suicide can reduce risk, as people usually feel more supported when they tell someone how they are feeling.
  • Provide validation to the person’s feelings: explain that you understand why they’re feeling this way right now. Let them know that help is available and that they aren’t alone
  • Do not judge: this includes showing signs of shock or fear, or arguing against the person’s feelings
  • Do not maintain confidentiality: never promise to keep an individual’s suicidal thoughts a secret. Confidentiality cannot be maintained where suicide/self-harm is a high risk factor. The relevant services must be informed.

Having the conversation

When discussing suicide with another person, make sure you stay in the moment. Your body language, use of questioning, and how you show your interest in the person all play a key part in how supported they will feel.

Take a non-judgemental approach and show you value what the other person is sharing with you. Thank them for opening up to you and do not interrupt them or rush their disclosure. Make sure to normalise any feelings they express and do not show signs of fear, worry, or anxiousness if suicide is mentioned.

Reflect and share back that you hear and understand the impact of their experiences when they are finished talking. Validate the person’s experience by checking and clarifying that you have understood what they mean correctly. Make them aware that help is available and do not promise to keep this conversation a secret if suicide is a risk factor.

What can I say in a conversation about suicide?

It’s normal to worry about what to say during a difficult conversation. The following statements are supportive:

  • “I’m sorry that things are tough for you right now”
  • “Thank you for sharing this with me. I really appreciate your honesty”
  • “What can we do to support you?”
  • “How are you? Like, really how are you?”
  • “Can we chat in a couple of days or weeks?”

Words and phrases to avoid

Remember that you don’t need to be able to fix the issue or situation. It’s also wise not to give advice based on your own personal experiences. What has worked for you might not have worked for others, which can lead to an individual feeling more hopeless.

If you are an untrained professional, you can support by listening, acknowledging, and providing validation for what the other person is feeling.

Try to be mindful of expressions on your face, particularly if you feel shocked or worried. By staying calm with a neutral expression, you can encourage someone to open up further, rather than shutting down.

Resources and external support organisations

When and how to seek help

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis episode, act immediately.

Confidential advice and support for your mental health is available for free, 24 hours a day, from either the Samaritans (call 116 123 or text 'SHOUT' to 85258) or by phoning 111. Please phone 999 or attend your nearest A&E for 24-hour emergency help with suicidal ideas if required.

What’s good to remember is that our words can have a positive impact too. Take a look at the table below for more information on using compassionate language when discussing suicide and mental health.

Last updated Friday 29 September 2023

First published on Friday 29 September 2023