The language of suicide

One balmy and rainy evening last January, I received a message from one of my dearest friends saying, “I don’t know how you used to deal with this on a daily basis.” Baffled, I asked him to clarify, and he responded simply, “Suicide.”

I previously worked at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a great organization that specializes in researching and educating people on mental health and suicide, as well as providing resources for those bereaved. I asked my friend to call me, and standing in the drizzle under a tree, I got chills not from the rain, but from my friend’s explanation that a young alumna from the high school in his hometown in northern New Jersey had died by suicide. Madison Holleran had graduated the previous spring and the community was grieving deeply. It was a tumultuous time, not least because of the difficult nature of comprehending suicide and why it is a thing that happens. A few months later, another young alum from that high school died by suicide, creating a growing fear of suicide contagion.

Now, one year later, Madison’s parents Jim and Stacy have released to People magazine the contents of the notes she left before her death, spurring international coverage and a reinvigorated conversation on depression and suicide. As when beloved comedian Robin Williams died by suicide last August, media outlets have latched onto the dramatic, sensationalistic language often associated with suicide, which incidentally is also extremely stigmatic. People’s article is called “Why Did a Popular, Smart, Athletic College Freshman Kill Herself?” while UK publication the Daily Mail published a piece with a title that edges on histrionic: “Parents share tragic suicide note of Ivy League track star, 19, who jumped to her death from a parking garage and left gifts for friends and family members nearby.” Many of these articles have mentioned the Hollerans’ desire to help other teenagers and college students who live with depression and anxiety, their eagerness to encourage a conversation on mental health, and the foundation they started in Madison’s memory to work towards these goals. And yet, most of the articles contribute to building the stigma the Hollerans want to destroy.

I learned a lot while working at AFSP, but if I had to say, the most valuable thing I learned was the importance of talking about mental health and suicide in an open and honest way, because if people cannot talk about the problems that lead to suicide, it cannot be prevented. It is amazing how people are willing to speak candidly about their experiences or losses when they meet someone they instinctively think will understand, that they think they can trust. I was always reluctant to tell strangers at parties or bars that I worked for a suicide prevention organization. Most people remarked that it must be a depressing place to work, that they recently heard a story in the news about a suicide, or that they’ve lost loved ones. One girl told me about her boyfriend who died by suicide when they were in high school. Another told me about his father who died by suicide when he was 12, and how he felt he could tell me this because I would understand how to react – and how not to react.

Even though I grew weary of this, I also was grateful for it. Yes, dealing with suicide on a daily basis was difficult, and on Saturday nights, I really wanted to relax and talk about something else – anything else. But, I also want people to voice their stories, their experiences, and have a conversation about mental health that doesn’t involve phrases like “committed suicide” and “killed herself” and “chose to die.” Such language is so heavy with negative connotations and weighty judgements, and indicates a lack of understanding about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental and mood disorders that too often lead to suicide. When the dialogue includes these phrases, it’s not a constructive dialogue.

During my time at AFSP, I was also in therapy myself for depression and anxiety, and I’ve since learned to speak of it freely and share my experiences with others. I’ve always believed that trust begets trust, and if you open up a little to others, it’s very likely they will open up to you. I admire and respect that Jim and Stacy Holleran shared Madison’s notes, but it frustrates me that the media are sensationalizing their grief and dramatizing their efforts to use their experiences to help others in need. There’s a certain amount of risk in reporting suicide – contagion is always a concern – and there’s a lot of irresponsible journalistic endeavors circulating. Many of these pieces further imply that Madison’s death is more tragic than others’ because she was so successful in her academic, athletic, and social lives, but the real tragedy is that she is one of thousands of people who died by suicide last year, and very few people are talking about it in a productive way.

I sincerely hope that the Hollerans’ willingness to bring about something positive from their loss helps to start honest conversation that doesn’t focus on describing someone’s death as a tragic end, but looks forward at how to eliminate that narrative altogether. I don’t work at AFSP anymore, but I hope I can still contribute to building a world without suicide, a world where no one, be it the track star or the outcast, experiences suicidal ideation or acts on it. It’s still something never far from my mind, so next time you see me at the bar, please don’t hesitate to pull up a seat. Let’s talk.