The way we talk about suicide matters

A new campaign calls for publications to take responsibility for the way suicide is reported. Sali Hughes is right behind it

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By Sali Hughes on

Several years ago, a former colleague of mine died by suicide. It was a huge shock and upset to us all. At the funeral, we – his family, friends, colleagues and partner – asked, “Why?” Why didn’t we see it coming? What had “happened” to cause it? Who had triggered him? How could he “do this” to his parents, his partner? Why hadn’t we realised and done something? It was only in the following months, as I looked more closely at suicide and sought out the stories of survivors, that I realised we had been asking many of the wrong questions, using the wrong words, seeking simplistic and unknowable answers to explain a horribly complex issue that encircled one man’s severe mental and emotional distress.

By the time designer Kate Spade died in June of this year, I knew better. But I was alarmed to find that many news outlets seemingly did not. Their reporting of Spade’s suicide, which could easily have appeared in a 1950s gossip mag, all began with the innocuous enough sounding term, “committed suicide”, a throwback to when suicide was a crime (it ceased to be one over 50 years ago) and implying a sinful act at a time when the very last thing a suicidal person should feel is guilty or somehow to blame for their illness and despair. Those considering suicide are not selfish, or cowardly, or “giving up”. They are in crisis, their every thought and feeling forced through a filter of mental unwellness. Nor should any suicide ever be described as “an easy way out” or “painless”. It is, by definition, a horrible, terrifying and harrowing place to be.

Next came all the media speculation on why Spade had chosen to end her life, just as it had when Robin Williams made the same tragic decision. I get it. People seek to find reason in the unfathomable, metrics for unmeasurable pain. Had there been a row, a break-up, financial worries or a bad person to “cause” the death of someone who appeared to have a great life? But our need for one-note solutions is unhelpful and does a disservice to anyone suffering from mental ill-health, or those attempting to treat them. It’s a naïve and wholly unhelpful approach that further mystifies illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, postnatal psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and their relatives, when the opposite is so desperately needed to save lives. In 2018, we know that people hardly ever plan and execute their own deaths solely because someone left them, cheated on them, sacked them, or because they ran out of cash. Suicide is the most extreme and tragic manifestation of such hopelessness, sorrow and despair that unending death seems more tolerable than continuing life.

Overwhelmingly, suicide is best prevented by proper mental healthcare, free talking, intent listening. Access to these is of critical importance


Suicide isn’t avoided by a bitten tongue in a row, a continued relationship that should end, a better job or a bit more money. Overwhelmingly, it’s best prevented by proper mental healthcare, free talking, intent listening. Access to these is of critical importance. To propagate the myth that a single outside event is somehow more influential is to set back the fight for better NHS provision, to decrease public understanding of mental ill-health and to cause further anguish to grieving loved ones.

Kate Spade’s suicide is the reason I so readily put my name to MP Luciana Berger and journalist Bryony Gordon’s open letter to Britain’s media this week. The letter is to mark World Suicide Prevention Day and, hopefully, the beginning of a newer, more enlightened discussion around suicide in Britain, which still claims 6,000 lives per year. I was grateful to be asked because it gave me the opportunity to take an inventory of my own vocabulary – whether in my writing or in everyday conversation. I had, like most people, reacted on more than one occasion to the news of a celebrity “committing suicide” not by questioning the inherent judgement in the phrase, but by immediately speculating as to what had “caused” it, as though I could ever begin to know.

Journalist or reader, you can get involved and feel good about it. No one is attempting to police anyone’s language here, or to criticise, or to play politics. It’s not political correctness gone mad, just a very simple act of kindness and helpfulness. All we ask is that we all – journalists, editors, readers, broadcasters, viewers, friends, family – speak more kindly and more compassionately about those affected by suicide. It’s easy for us all to take part, to stop saying “committed suicide” and, instead, be committed to talking about suicide in a way that helps, that advances, that tries to understand. Because none of this is to say that suicide is out of our hands, something we shouldn’t interfere with, something we shouldn’t talk about for fear of saying the wrong thing. The opposite is true. Suicide is preventable. Language is important. When others are experiencing such anguish, the very least we can do is to think before we speak.

If you are feeling like you want to die, it’s extremely important that you speak to someone about it. The NHS has a list of organisations who are there to help you.


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