What not to say when talking about suicide

Congress could soon take up new legislation to bolster suicide prevention programs. Sen. Chuck Schumer is calling on the federal government to increase funding following a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found the rate of suicide in the U.S. rose nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2016. The report came just after the high-profile suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked a national conversation about mental health and suicide prevention. 

Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, joined “CBS This Morning” to discuss the culture around suicide and how to avoid judgmental language when discussing it. 

“The AP Stylebook has changed and advises against the phrase ‘committed suicide’ because if you think about the term, ‘committed’ implies a criminal act, a moral act. ‘Committed murder.’ And suicide has been vastly misunderstood over the years. We should say the person took their life, died by suicide, ended his or her life. Plain language. No judgment,” Moutier said.   

While the reason behind the rise in suicide deaths is hard to pinpoint, the good news is that Moutier thinks America is finally paying attention.

“This comes at a time when the American public is actually wonderfully more open-minded about mental health being a part of health. Now, we need to deepen that to a greater level of literacy and actionable strategies,” she said. “Economic changes, access to lethal means including the opioid epidemic that we’re in right now — just that infusion of an easy access to lethal means can drive up the rate.”

While a history of mental health issues can be an indicator someone is at risk of suicide, Moutier said there are typically a number of factors at play when someone decides to take their own life.

“I would advise everyone to understand that we have been socialized to hide our distress. We function through a lot and that can be a good thing to a point. So subtle changes in a person’s behavior will possibly tip you off and I would trust your gut instinct,” Moutier said. “When they’re isolating, withdrawing, their sleep starts to change, they’re drinking more, using more, losing their temper more. Those are all indications, very likely that their mental health could be shifting and deteriorating.”

Warning signs of suicide

Health officials recommend that everyone familiarize themselves with the warning signs of suicide, which may include:

  • A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themself
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless
  • Social isolation and withdrawing from people and activities
  • Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes

Risk factors of suicide

  • A history of mental health issues including depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders
  • Stressful life events
  • Family history of suicide
  • Childhood abuse or trauma

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

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