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Suicide-related Terminology

We use a lot of specialized terminology in the suicide-intervention world, and it can be pretty opaque to outsiders. This page is intended as a quick introduction and glossary to help folks understand what we’re talking about. Also check my pages on talking about suicide deaths and why you shouldn’t forward photos of suicide deaths.

Updated March 29, 2015.

I’ve broken the terms into three categories: Generally Accepted, New Terms, and Deprecated/Discouraged. This is because consensus about language happens slowly; others may disagree about where given words belong. These are my thoughts.

If you’re here because you’re thinking about suicide and you want help, I’m so glad you’re reading this—and I want you to know that people like me are here to listen to your story. Chances are good that there’s a local crisis hotline near where you live; if you’re in the USA, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK / 1-800-273-8255) for free from anywhere in the country, or you can get online help at CrisisChat.org. Please call or visit the website—there’s help for you.

Generally Accepted Terms

Most people in our field agree on what these mean.

  • Attempt (n) (v). To take actions with the intent of dying by suicide.
  • Caregiver (n). A person who helps with prevention, intervention, or postvention. Usually used to describe the people directly interacting with a person who has thoughts of suicide. It’s also appropriate to use specific descriptions for a role (counselor, rabbi, police officer, doctor, etc.) if needed, but we tend to use ‘caregiver’ as the generic catch-all term.
  • Completed suicide (n). A suicide attempt that ended in the death of the person attempting suicide. Also “died by suicide”, “suicided”, etc.
  • Crisis (n). Hard to define, but we tend to describe it as the condition where a person’s usual coping methods aren’t getting it done anymore. Sometimes a crisis is precipitated by a traumatic event, but often it’s a slow accretion of difficulties until it feels like something has to change because the old way won’t work anymore. Sometimes a person who is in crisis will think of suicide as a way to resolve the situation, and we call that a ‘suicide crisis’.
  • Ideation (n). Thoughts about suicide, whether accompanied by intention to die or not. Suicide ideation is often considered the “thinking about it” phase of a suicide crisis. Anyone in a crisis where suicide is one of the options they’re considering could be said to have suicide ideation, independent of whether they actually want to die right now. There’s no single word in common use to describe the change from when a person is considering suicide (ideation) to when they are planning suicide (intent to die, desire to attempt, etc.), but we usually talk about a shift in intention. Note that suicide ideation does not always lead to a desire to die, and a desire to die does not always translate into an attempt. Also called ‘suicidal ideation’.
  • Intervention (n). Helping someone who is currently in a suicide crisis. The crisis may involve thoughts of suicide and may also involve attempts/actions.
  • Lethality assessment (n). A systematic way of assessing how immediate/acute/imminent a person’s suicide risk may be. Also refers to the tools/checklists/etc. used in performing a lethality assessment.
  • Lived experience (n). The things a person has experienced, particularly regarding suicide. May conflict with theories or beliefs held by others. See this guide to talking about it.
  • Person-first language (n). Using terms that place emphasis on the whole person, not just a particular condition. For example, “person with thoughts of suicide” rather than “suicidal person”.
  • Person with thoughts of suicide (n). A person who’s thinking about suicide. We prefer this in favor of more-judgmental terms like “suicidal person” because it uses person-first language that doesn’t define the person solely by the crisis.
  • Postvention (n). Working with individual people or groups of people to support and care for them after a person has died by suicide. Postvention often aims to promote healing among survivors while also preventing harm to vulnerable people.
  • Prevention (n). Working with individual people or groups of people to diminish their future risk of suicide. Generally presupposes that the people are not in a suicide crisis right now.
  • Safety contract (n). A verbal or written agreement in which a person with thoughts of suicide promises not to attempt suicide. There’s a lot of debate about whether these contracts are effective, and the consensus seems to be moving away from them.
  • Suicide cluster (n). A group of suicide deaths that occurred near the same place or around the same time. Does not imply that the deaths were connected or related in other ways. Some people use the term to refer to attempts as well as completed suicides.
  • Suicide contagion (n). A group of suicide deaths where there seems to be a causal connection between the people who died that led them all toward suicide. Some people use the term to refer to attempts as well as completed suicides. Differs from a suicide cluster in that a contagion has links between the people who died.
  • Suicide crisis (n). A crisis where a person thinks of suicide. Not all suicide crises lead to attempts; in fact, suicide attempts occur in a relatively small portion of suicide crises. When someone helps a person in suicide crisis, we call it ‘intervention’.
  • Suicidology (n). The academic study of suicide.
  • Survivor (n). Someone affected by the suicide death of another person. Survivors are often friends, family, or coworkers of the dead person, but anyone who feels affected by a suicide death is a survivor. Note that we do not historically use ‘survivors’ to refer to people who lived through a suicide attempt; for that, look at ‘suicide-attempt survivors‘ under New Terms.

New Terms

These terms are new, growing, or debated. Some people use them; others don’t.

  • Attempt survivor (n). Someone who attempted suicide and lived. See also suicide-attempt survivor and survivor of a suicide attempt.
  • One bereaved by suicide (n). Proposed as an alternative to ‘survivor’, i.e., a person who is affected by a suicide death. Not yet in wide use.
  • Psychiatric disability (n). Proposed as an alternative to “mental health issues” or “mental illness”, to encourage people to think of mental health disabilities with the same respect (and legal rights) they bring to other disabilities. From Shayda Kafai.
  • Suicide (v). To die by suicide. Usually used as “he suicided” in place of more judgmental language like “he committed suicide”. Proponents of this term feel that it’s a relatively value-neutral word that simply describes a death by suicide; opponents dislike it because it feels clinical, isn’t a word in common use as a verb already, and doesn’t add much value over phrasings like “kill [yourself]”, “die by suicide”, “take your life”, etc. Suicide-as-verb tends to be used more frequently in academic literature.
  • Suicide-attempt survivor (n). Someone who attempted suicide during a suicide crisis and lived through it. This is different from a ‘survivor’, which the field defines as the people left behind when someone dies. Backwards, I think, but that’s the consensus.
  • Suicide-loss survivor (n). Proposed as an alternative to ‘survivor’, i.e., a person who is affected by a suicide death. Not yet in wide use.
  • Survivor of a suicide attempt (n). See suicide-attempt survivor.
  • Survivor of suicide loss (n). See suicide-loss survivor.

Deprecated/Discouraged Terms

These are terms we, as a field, are asking people to stop using, either because they pathologize suffering or because they’re not sufficiently precise to be useful.

  • Commit suicide (v). Judgmental language. We commit sins, we commit crimes, and we commit people to mental hospitals. Use “attempt suicide” to describe an attempt or “die by suicide” to describe a death.
  • Gesture (n) (v). People sometimes refer to suicide attempts or thoughts as “gestures”, often suggesting that the people with thoughts of suicide are selfish or seeking attention. This is disrespectful (because it trivializes and devalues what the person is going through). Use “attempt” instead, and try to avoid judgmental tone.
  • Hurt yourself (v). People often use this kind of phrase when they’re uncomfortable asking directly about suicide. Two issues: it’s not specific enough (see entry for ‘Self-harm’), and it shows that the speaker is uncomfortable talking about suicide, which makes it harder for the person being asked to share openly. Use “attempt suicide” instead.
  • Just (adv). You’ll hear this a lot: “just depressed”, “just feeling bad right now”, “just having a hard time”, “just needed help”, “just not coping very well”, “just not strong enough”, etc. In each case, the “just” serves to minimize the problems and casually disparage the thoughts and experiences of the person with thoughts of suicide. Avoid it.
  • Permanent solution to a temporary problem (n). This feels incredibly disrespectful if you’re the person with thoughts of suicide, because it shows that the speaker doesn’t take the thoughts or situation seriously. Consider how you’d sound saying suicide was a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” if you knew that the person wanted to die because they’d just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I wrote a whole follow-up article about the “permanent solution to a temporary problem” language.
  • Self-harm (n). Covers a broad range of self-injurious behaviors from suicide to substance abuse to cutting to… really anything. Unless you want to describe the whole range of self-harm, pick a different term.
  • Selfish (adj). We ask people not to describe suicide as a selfish action because (a) it’s not usually true and (b) it makes it harder for people with thoughts of suicide to seek help if they think they’ll be called selfish.
  • Self-mutilation (n). Same as self-harm, but more judgmental. Use “self-harm” if you want to describe the broad range of behaviors; use the words for specific behaviors if you want to discuss them individually.
  • Successful suicide (n). When someone dies by suicide. We don’t want to portray suicide death as a ‘success’. Use “died by suicide” instead.
  • Suicidal person (n). There’s debate on this one, but most people prefer “person with thoughts of suicide” because “suicidal person” feels like it labels and pathologizes the person more, defining them by their illness. Compare to “person with lung cancer” vs. “lung-cancer person”. See “person-first language” above.
  • Unsuccessful suicide (n). When someone lives through an attempt. We don’t want to portray suicide death as a ‘success’. Use “attempted suicide” instead.

Do you have terms that should be added to these lists? Leave a comment and I’ll take a look! Thanks.

(I’m sure it goes without saying, but: these are my own thoughts and my own definitions, not those of my employer or anyone else I’ve worked with. And really, if you’re reading this and you need help, please call a crisis hotline. We’re here to help!)

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7 thoughts on “Suicide-related Terminology

  1. Thank you for this list. I’ve been very interested in the terminology used to describe mental illness as well as to relate to those with it. As someone with MI, I’ve always been very turned off, annoyed and insulted when people and providers use terms like “hurt yourself”, “harm yourself” etc. It immediately reinforces the gap that exists between those with MI and those without it. As someone with it, “hurting myself” makes absolutely no sense. I recognize that to the rest of the world, it appears that I am “hurting myself” but what I’m actually doing is comforting myself. Taking care of myself in the only ways I know how and the only ways that have been effective. To exist in my current state would be “hurting myself”- mental illness is painful. Very. Some people will say it’s simply semantics but I wholeheartedly disagree. It’s very difficult to even broach the subject with someone who fails to understand that unhealthy coping mechanisms are not the same thing as sadistic, misguided, or irrational behavior. And, if they do understand this, I would love to see people use more appropriate and accurate terminology. I think it would go a long way in fostering empathy, understanding and bridging a divide that makes this world an incredibly lonely place for those of us who feel perpetually misunderstood. Thanks again for your attention to such an important matter. Language is powerful.

  2. I find myself curious about the “commit suicide” terminology being considered judgmental. You list 3 items “committing sins, committing crimes, and committing people to a hospital”.

    But, I also commit to a deadline, commit myself to doing a good deed every day, and commit myself to re-electing my Senator.

    Can I ask how and when it became seen as a more judgmental term?

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