How To Respect Someone With Depression
A conversation about using proper terminology when referring to death
Please be advised that this essay will discuss topics such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal intent. I am not a medical professional and my only credentials are being a person who suffers from, or has suffered from, all of the above.
When I was in the fifth grade, I did a book report on a biography of a famous woman whose name I can’t recall. In the biography, the author spoke about how the subject’s mother had killed herself in their living room.
Confused about why anyone would ever do such a thing, I wrote my report about the person’s life. I wrote about how the mother had “performed suicide on herself.” I remember my wording exactly because that was what I believed had happened. The mother had killed herself out in the open of her home where her family found her hours later, which matched with my 11-year-old definition of “performance.”
My mother, upon reading my report to help proofread, told me what I had written was wrong. She seemed very upset by the way I had worded the tragedy, stating I should have asked the proper verbiage before typing up my paper.
That has always stuck with me; that I hadn’t used the proper or correct wording to describe what had happened.
Historically, when someone kills themselves it is referred to as “committing suicide.” Although in recent years, those of us that are depressed and suffer from suicidal ideation or intent have started discussing other options for verbiage.
What’s this all about?
Saying someone “committed” suicide implies that there was something wrong that they did. “Committed” is a word associated with crimes, but someone who is so depressed that they are thinking about hurting themselves is not committing a crime, they are mentally unwell and don’t see any other option.
Why You Should Stop Saying 'Committed Suicide'
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This HuffPost article speaks about this idea more, about how words matter when we speak about people suffering from a severe mental illness. Using language like “committed suicide” rather than other words elicits blame on the person who hurt themselves. Someone who is mentally ill doesn’t need to be blamed for their actions, they need to be listened to and offered support.
The author of the piece, Lindsay Holmes, speaks about the importance of using the language “died by suicide” because suicidal ideation is a disease, and dying by suicide is the result or consequence of the underlying condition going untreated.
“You don’t say someone committed a heart attack,” she quotes Dan Reidenberg. “You say someone died of a heart attack.”
So what should we use?
I’ve been depressed for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been very quiet, I’ve always been pretty introverted, and I’m known to catastrophize everything. I’ve suffered from not only suicidal ideation but also suicidal intent.
Up until recently I had never considered any sort of terminology besides “committed” when referring to taking one’s life. But Holmes makes some excellent points about reducing the stigma surrounding suicide and depression in general.
By default, I use the words “commit suicide” to describe someone who has taken their own life. As a loud, proud advocate for mental illness awareness and treatment, I’m starting to think twice about the words that I use.
I’m dedicated to writing about fighting stigma, especially surrounding people with mental illnesses. There are dozens of different illnesses and disorders that are widely misunderstood and demonized in our society, so I make a point to discuss such topics openly and objectively (as much as I can, at least). If I, or any other person, were to use words to further demonize these disorders, we would not be any better than people actively demonizing mental illness.
Of course I can’t speak for every person who suffers from suicidal ideation or intent; I can only speak for myself. While “commit suicide” doesn’t offend me or bother me personally, that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting the entire community.
It comes down to the individual and what they would prefer. Be an active participant in change. Ask questions when you don’t understand something, listen to what people with mental illnesses have to say, and make an effort.
We have to continue speaking on these kinds of topics that can be uncomfortable if we want to reduce stereotypes and stigma.