The Weight of a word
How We Say What We Say Matters

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During Mental Health Awareness month, along with raising awareness and fighting the stigmas about mental health, we have the opportunity to reflect on how our behavior and our words can mean much more than we intend. We as a community are learning that how we say what we say matters. Language matters. Words matter.

Mental illness and suicide

The symptoms and impact of mental illness can range from mild to crippling. There remains a longstanding stigma or sense of shame associated with mental illness, leading many to resist seeking treatment. This stigma surrounding mental illness has been described by some individuals as worse than the condition itself.

Suicide is tragic, and families are forever changed after suicide has entered their lives. Sadly, more than 40,000 Americans die by suicide each year, and millions consider it. Profoundly, 90% of those who die by suicide have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition. Treatment for mental health can significantly reduce suicide rates, but often the shame of needing that treatment keeps people from seeking it.

Remove the blame

An impactful, yet simple way to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide is to consider the words we use when talking about suicide. The language often used to describe the taking of one’s own life is “commit suicide.” This language, though common, is outdated, limiting and painful.

As individuals and as a society we need to encourage each other to discuss mental illness and suicide openly, honestly and without blame or shame

People commit murder, they commit fraud, and they commit treason. But people do not commit suicide. The word “commit,” when speaking of suicide, subconsciously associates the act of someone taking their own life as an awful crime and generates blame. Suicide is not a crime. Referring to it as such alters the way we view those who struggle with The Weight of a How We Say What We Say Matters By Erin Pagel WORD mental illness. The use of “commit” is laden with blame. There is no blame in mental illness, only a medical condition that can be treated. There is no blame in suicide, only sadness and loss.

Instead of commit suicide, better language includes “took their own life,” “died by suicide” or “completed suicide.” Continuing to say “committed” perpetuates the stigma of mental illness that many mental health advocates are fighting hard to undo. Words matter when discussing suicide. Our words reflect our attitudes and the attitudes of others.

How we say what we say

With the understanding of the power of words also comes a responsibility to educate others and create change. To remove the shame associated with mental illness and suicide, we need to practice using the words “suicide” and “mental illness,” so that we speak them as easily as any other words—without shushing our voices or changing our tone. As individuals and as a society we need to encourage each other to discuss mental illness and suicide openly, honestly and without blame or shame.

Changing a simple word can create an opportunity, and sharing this change can impact others. Your words could save a life.

If you are in crisis and need emergency assistance, call 9-1-1 or Crisis Response of Southeast Minnesota at 844-274-7472 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

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About Author

Erin Pagel

Erin is a freelance writer living in Rochester. She serves on the Board of Directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southeast Minnesota (NAMI SEMN) and encourages everyone to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness.

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