WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: Words Matter

Nov 18, 2020

The 5th annual Macomb/McDonough County Out of the Darkness Event was held September 26, 2020 on the Macomb City Hall lawn. Things were done differently this year because of the pandemic, but our incredible community raised over $19,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Unfortunately, our community and others continue to lose loved to suicide far too often.

When suicide loss survivors hear the words “suicide prevention” it can sometimes trigger feelings of intense guilt and shame. It may sound like they should have somehow prevented their loved one’s suicide. Some people prefer the term “suicide awareness.” I get it. Believe me when I say, those feelings of guilt and shame are going to be there anyway. I have experienced every parent’s worst nightmare and the most painful emotions imaginable when I lost my oldest son Adam to suicide in 2016.

To me, prevention is a term of hope. Not all suicides will or can be prevented but there are things we can do if we are aware of the signs and where to find help. Prevention is one of those difficult to measure outcomes. I have heard enough people say, “You saved my life,” without the person that did so be they friend, family member, or counselor even knowing the person was contemplating suicide. Please know that being a friend, a listener, or a positive memory in someone’s life matters greatly.

Occasionally I will hear or read about a “successful” suicide. This one absolutely stabs me in the heart. There is nothing successful about the pain and agony experienced by the living after a suicide. The preferred terminology would be a completed suicide. Even that gives me a tinge of uncomfortable feelings. 

Glennon Doyle, bestselling author of Untamed, recently posted a heartfelt plea to coaches everywhere. Please stop using the expression suicide sprint or drill. The statistics for suicide and attempted suicide are alarmingly high among young people, so chances are at least one person on a team has been touched by suicide or thought about suicide and will feel a gut punch if the word suicide is thrown about lightly. Suicide should be discussed, but intentionally, thoughtfully, and openly.

The other major phrase to be avoided is that someone “committed” suicide. The word commit is associated with crime and sin, placing an unnecessary stigma on an already difficult subject. Died by suicide, took their own life, ended their life, or even killed themself are considered better ways to talk about suicide.

A final concern is the popularity of the acronym KYS. In text lingo it is disturbingly common for kids to tell others to go kill yourself. We’ve all heard that sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you? KYS  is the most awful thing I can think of to tell someone else. Words do hurt, and bullying on social media is rampant and may contribute to suicide in young people, who are vulnerable to peer pressure.

For local programming and resources, you can contact me at susandenecke12@gmail.com. If you are contemplating suicide please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, text TALK to 741-741, or go to your nearest emergency room.

Now more than ever, with the isolation of the pandemic and the fight for social and racial justice, we need to mind our mental health. The message I would like to give is: there is hope, there is help, and words matter.

Susan Denecke is suicide loss survivor and mental health professional for more than 20 years.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.
Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.