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Suicidal Ideation: 19 Words to Watch Out For

If you’re worried about a friend’s mental health, listen for these words.

When we lose someone to suicide, whether it was a public figure or someone we knew in our personal lives, most of us ask ourselves if there were anything that we could have done to prevent the loss of a life.

We might go back over conversations we had with the deceased or we might review videos of recorded interviews of individuals who were in the public eye. On one hand, we want to “see for ourselves” something that we might have missed in the person’s demeanor or mood. On the other hand, we want reassurance that there was nothing that gave any indication that we should have been strongly concerned about that person’s well-being. None of us want an “I knew it was going to happen” type of inner revelation — that could put us in an emotional chokehold that could affect our own well-being long-term.

Many people who are truly serious about ending their lives are going to do so without a lot of preamble or hints of upcoming actions. The number of people who actually leave a note is reported between a quarter and a third of all those who complete suicide; this adds further support to the notion that suicide can be a very private act that is about what the individual is feeling in the moment, not about their feelings about what their death might mean for others.

Talking about suicide with someone who is depressed and seems to be losing their battle with the disease and is expressing a desire for escape or death is not going to push them into a suicide attempt that they would not have otherwise taken. However, it might actually be the motivation needed to seek out professional assistance.

In addition to talking to an individual about whose safety you are concerned, listening to an individual’s word choices and vocabulary might actually help you determine whether a person is suffering from depression that may be severe enough to motivate a suicide attempt.

Researchers (Ellis & Rutherford, 2008) have found that there are three co-occurring cognitive obstructions in suicidal individuals: cognitive rigidity, dichotomous thinking (for instance, everything is right or wrong; bad or good; helpful or harmful); and difficulty solving problems.

These three phenomenon feed off each other. When you can only think in dichotomous ways, living becomes a painful alternative to death; if your thinking grows rigid and you are unable to generate alternative ways to solve the problems that are driving you to feel that life is not worth living, death can begin to appear as a suitable alternative.

This endless cycle of negative thought and limited option generation is best interrupted by a caring conversation and helpful support from another. Listening for cues that suggest a person is feeling cornered by life’s circumstances and only sees a final exit as a possible solution can help you engage and act to get the individual access to professional assistance.

In another set of research studies, Al-Mosaiwi and Johnstone (2018) found that the vocabulary used by individuals at risk of suicide was uniquely different from those who suffered from other mental health disorders including non-affective and affective disorders. It turns out that individuals who are suicidal will utilize different vocabularies than other groups, including those suffering from depression and anxiety.

The Difference Is “Absolutely” Clear

The main difference in vocabulary choices among suicidal persons is their use of words that connote absolutism. These are words that reflect their absolutist, rigid, dichotomous thinking.

While earlier studies were using two terms, absolute and extreme, interchangeably, Al-Mosaiwi and Johnstone were able to tease the terms apart in that it was the prevalence of absolutist words that was strikingly different between suicidal persons and other groups.

Frequently Used Absolutist Words – What to Listen For

  1. Absolutely
  2. All
  3. Always
  4. Complete
  5. Completely
  6. Constant
  7. Constantly
  8. Definitely
  9. Entire
  10. Ever
  11. Every
  12. Everyone
  13. Everything
  14. Full
  15. Must
  16. Never
  17. Nothing
  18. Totally
  19. Whole

If you have a friend who seems to be suffering from a sense of impending doom, depression, or problems that seem insurmountable, listen to the words your friend is using. Encourage your friend to seek help in dealing with the problems she is facing and if you notice a change in word choice and a growing sense of hopelessness, urge her to get help quickly.

In addition to the increased frequency of these absolutist terms, individuals with suicidal ideation are also more likely to use curse words as intensifiers of their feelings and thoughts.

Be alert to any changes in the vocabulary and intensity of a friend or loved one's feelings when they are coping with feelings of desperation or depression. If their words indicate a sense of helplessness or feeling that there is no solution to their current problems, encourage them to seek help from trained professionals. We all send out signals of our mood state, but sometimes they may be more significant than first realized.

If you are considering suicide:

Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

If you are in the company of someone who is actively contemplating suicide:

  • Get help from a trained professional as quickly as possible. The person may need to be hospitalized until the suicidal crisis has passed.

  • Encourage the person to call a suicide hotline number. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.


Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2018). In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702617747074

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