Vocabulary – How to Talk about Suicide

As we evolve in terms of suicide prevention in Canada, so does our understanding of the impact of suicide on individuals, groups, and communities.

Through this evolution, our language shifts to respectfully reflect the many faces and identities of those who reach out to us, whether it be out of curiosity, for information, or to realize they are not alone.

Bonnie Ball was instrumental in bringing survivors bereaved by suicide to the CASP table two decades ago. Today, we know that the reach of those impacted by a suicide loss goes well beyond close family and friends to include colleagues, peers, clients, patients, a stranger who witnessed an attempt or a death and friends of friends. Some of those people will identify themselves as bereaved by suicide, some as impacted by suicide, some as survivors of suicide loss.

Those who have survived a suicide attempt are also survivors and yet, not all will identify or call themselves “a survivor”. Our identities – who we are, how we see ourselves in the world and how we identify ourselves to ourselves and to others – is as unique as each one of us. Recognizing that only you can identify how you identify yourself, leads us to considering how we use the word “survivor” in the broader context of our organization and the communities we serve.

Those who have lost someone to suicide, those bereaved by suicide, survivors of suicide loss, people who have survived an attempt, attempt survivors, those who support, care for and love someone with constant thoughts of suicide, are all people who have had their lives impacted by suicide.  

For this reason, we are choosing to use the broader term “impacted by suicide” to refer to those who experience thoughts of suicide, have had suicidal behaviour, lost someone to suicide, or who support, care for, and worry about someone who struggles or has struggled with suicide. Each one of us will have a preference and there is no right or wrong to how you identify yourself.

When someone’s use of language differs from your own, it provides an opportunity to engage in dialogue with compassion and curiosity that can promote understanding and connection. The term “impacted by suicide” is our attempt to acknowledge and recognize that the tentacles of suicide are far-reaching; utilizing a language that is inclusive of all who have been impacted by the complexity of this serious public health issue. We wish to include everyone in the conversation.

There is no clear-cut right or wrong way to the language you use when talking about suicide. However, we invite you to consider the following based on feedback provided by people impacted by suicide.

Completed Suicide“Does this mean that by still being alive I’m incomplete?”~ Died by Suicide
~Death by their own hand
Failed Attempt“I’m a failure. I can’t even kill myself right.”~Suicide attempt
Unsuccessful Attempt“If I died, I’d be a success.” “Surviving means I’m unsuccessful.”~Suicide attempt
Committed Suicide“I feel like a criminal.” “I’m a criminal if I die by suicide.”~Died by suicide
~Death by their own hand