5 Ways to Be Mindful of How We Talk About Suicide

Yashna Vishwanathan
·3-min read

If you or someone you know needs help, call any of these helplines: Aasra (Mumbai) 022-27546669, Sneha (Chennai) 044-24640050, Sumaitri (Delhi) 011-23389090, Cooj (Goa) 0832- 2252525, Jeevan (Jamshedpur) 065-76453841, Pratheeksha (Kochi) 048-42448830, Maithri (Kochi) 0484-2540530, Roshni (Hyderabad) 040-66202000, Lifeline 033-64643267 (Kolkata)

New Delhi: The act of suicide — reading about it, knowing of it or knowing of someone close to us dying by suicide can be unsettling for us in different degrees. It brings us a myriad spectrum of experiences — a sense of loss, the resonance it may bear to our own lives and perhaps, hence a desperate need to speculate what could have caused it.

What could the person or people around them have done to prevent it from happening? People often say, “Just the other day I met them and they seemed okay! Why couldn’t they have shared their distress with someone?”

While the suicidal behavior may bring to us many difficult questions, emotions, perhaps helplessness and hence assumptions to make sense of the act, it’s important for us to build a collective understanding of the act of suicide. An understanding that moves suicide beyond the individual responsibility of the act (equally importantly after their deaths) to locating the distress in a highly unequal, capitalist and an able-ist world we live in today.

Also read: 17% of Global Suicides Happen in India. Are We Doing Enough About Mental Health?

Recently, 25-year-old Drishti Kahnani, who was studying in Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), died by suicide leading to conjecturing on what could have disturbed her. She was a bright child from Bihar, who studied in Delhi School of Economics and Sri Ram College of Commerce.

Here are some of the (not-so) little things we can hold close to us or do together to move towards a non-blameful approach towards suicidal behavior and dismantle some problematic ideas about it.

1. To be mindful of the language we use to talk about suicide. The verb ‘commit’ should not surface in conversations while talking about the person because it implies an understanding that the behavior was a criminal act (also refer to decriminalizing suicide in the Mental Health Care, 2017). A more acceptable way of referring to a death by suicide is to say “person A died by suicide”. The gradual change in terminology has helped in fighting the stigma around suicide.

2. The language used around a suicidal behavior also has further implications on the dominant stories told about the person. The conversations around the act are blaming the person, the conclusions drawn are highly impersonal, often contain severe misinformation peddled in pop-psychology and are seeking to attach labels and use of vocabularies such as cowardly, shameful, not strong enough.

3. The accountability of the act has long been attached to the person who attempts it or dies by it but the complexity of the act hasn’t been explained by theories even after years of research. Suicide, more often, is a response to things that are situated external to the person. People could have really difficult experiences being on the margins due to factors such as – social class, caste, gender, sexual orientation, disability and so many other systems. A suicidal behavior brings in a conclusion that the person who attempted it ‘needs fixing’ and thus locates the problems inside people’s minds.

4. Care must be taken when we use terms like ‘suicide prevention’ oh, so often. Such discussions should unpack what ‘suicide prevention’ should look like. While medication, therapy and helpline numbers may be important interventions to addressing/preventing suicide, it’s important to understand what multi-disciplinary care in schools, colleges, community and state, policy level changes may be needed in place to prevent the act.

5. People are not the problem. People are responding to systems that don’t care about them, exclude them and inflict pains that are rooted in unequal structures. It is important then to create non-judgemental, non-blameful and inclusive spaces for individuals early in their lives that affirm their identities.

Author Yashna Vishwanathan, Mumbai based mental health counsellor