My son, Tom, died by suicide in March 2015. His death inspired me to learn more about suicide and mental illness, and I have found a particular passion around the role that language plays in how society perceives these subjects. In fact, I was moved to research and create a presentation entitled “Language Matters: Constructive Conversations around Mental Illness and Suicide”, which I have presented for a few years both locally and nationally. At the end of each presentation, I ask the listeners to commit to changing at least one way they talk about mental illness and suicide, and to share that information with those present and someone outside of the presentation.
One of my responsibilities as a presenter is to be sure my content stays current, so I can ensure I provide the most up-to-date information for audience members. I take this responsibility very seriously, so I was grateful when a retired mental health editor contacted me after reading an online article about a “Language Matters” webinar I was scheduled to do in May of 2021. He was concerned about the use of the phrase “reducing stigma around mental illness and suicide ideation” which was referenced in the story and taken directly from my website (www.StarrBrightPresentations.com), and is a fairly common phrase in prevention.
The gentleman shared two points. First, why would we want to only reduce the stigma around something? Shouldn’t we be working to erase it entirely? And second, any time we talk about stigma around mental illness and suicide ideation, we are reinforcing the idea that there is a stigma. So even when attempting to make a positive change, those words may be hurtful to those experiencing mental illness or suicide ideation.
At first, I pushed back on his perspective and cited the national #stopthestigma campaign around mental health. But in the end, he convinced me, because as an advocate for the importance of professional care for those experiencing mental illness and/or thoughts of suicide, I want people to feel as safe as possible to talk about, request, and receive that care. By stopping the use of the term stigma related to mental illnesses, it helps normalize receiving healthy interventions just like visiting a physician.
After our conversation, I removed any reference to stigma from my presentations and website. His advice fundamentally changed how I talk about these important subjects. It took some effort to find improved language, but in the end, the effort was worth it.
If you are an advocate of encouraging mental health services, I hope you will consider advocating for change around the language our society uses to discuss it. As our understanding of mental illnesses and suicide ideation continues to evolve, so must our language.
Kimberly is a suicide loss survivor hoping to make a difference for others through her transparency. www.starrbrightpresentations.com