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Reconsidering How We Talk About Suicide

Understanding suicide as its own form of family violence.

Dan Meyers/ Unsplash
Source: Dan Meyers/ Unsplash

I’ve spent my professional life writing, researching, and teaching about various forms of family violence, and the causes and consequences of it. I also spent well over a decade counseling abusers and working with survivors.

Domestic violence advocates, practitioners, and researchers have done a remarkable job showing the connection between domestic violence and suicide, in terms of how abusers frequently resort to threats of suicide as a way to control their partners and to prevent them from leaving them—and they have shown that survivors may resort to suicide when they feel that they have exhausted all of their options and feel wholly entrapped. Furthermore, news story after news story showcases the ways in which abusers commit murder, often in the grotesque form of familicidal homicide, and then proceed to kill themselves.

But the one thing that isn’t talked about is the way in which suicide itself, even when not at all intertwined with pre-existing family violence, might be appropriately understood as its own form of family violence. Suicide accomplishes much of what other forms of family violence achieve, which is that its effects are felt in ripples and waves far beyond the lone individual, the lone couple, or the family unit.

Suicide detonates a family, decimates it, and shatters one’s sense of reality. Just as victims of domestic violence often come to regard their relationship, marriage, or family structure as a lie—something that wasn’t sturdy, durable, and strong—survivors of suicide are left to question truth from fiction. Sadly, in neither situation can survivors ever hope to obtain entirely reliable explanations.

“Committed suicide” is a phrase that many people have advocated against using, while insisting instead on the term “died by suicide.” I understand that language and naming are powerful, and I’m compassionate toward anyone who wants to remove the stigma of suicide. But reinforcing passivity doesn’t really do that. Isn’t there a way to understand and reconcile suicide as an intense action that carries intentionality, commitment, and even manipulation of the reality that a person wants others to believe?

Victims of domestic violence don’t die by domestic violence at the hands of an angry lover. They die because an abuser wages a campaign bent on destroying them in every way possible—emotionally, physically, financially, professionally, sexually, and spiritually. We can still try to remove the stigma of domestic violence while telling the truth about the action.

The passive voice cloaks horror in more shame, silence, and secrecy, while an active voice invokes clarity rather than confusion. There is still agency and resistance enacted by the person killing themselves even when that action emerges from a sense of utter desperation and the perception of choicelessness.

Violence is a choice, whether it's done toward someone else or to ourselves. There are always other choices. For those who may bristle at the notion of suicide as a choice, I would ask them to question if they think homicide is somehow not a choice. It would be absurd to think homicide is not a choice unless perhaps we are talking about purely accidental tragedies.

Context is so crucial to understanding suicide. When I was seven years old, my mother explained it to me in a very matter of fact way because one of my dearest childhood friends lost her mother that way. Eerily, I went on to become friends with many people whose lives have been rocked by suicide because people that they loved did it. I have had students who have lost family members and friends to suicide, and numerous other students have shared with me that they’ve attempted it one or more times themselves; one former student later killed himself on New Years Day. It’s a nightmarish swirl of overdosing, shooting, hanging, and jumping off balconies—all of which constitute actions.

When I reflect on the people I know who have committed suicide, I've come to see how first they died in their own minds. One could say that they died by shame, disappointment, guilt, fear, crushingly low self-esteem, depression, or any number of other issues. So many life choices, as well as failure to fulfill one's own commitments, create the constellation of problems that culminate in these tragedies.

Crafting euphemisms and other ways to soften the language to make us feel better may not really be what is most needed to reduce stigma. Stigma reduction happens when we can speak more openly and honestly about whatever it is that carries the stigma.

Advocates for suicide prevention emphasize that saying “died by suicide” helps to remove culpability, which can then reduce stigma. The trouble with that line of thinking is the assumption that committed actions are necessarily blame-worthy actions. They are not. If “committed suicide” suggests culpability, crime, and sin, then surely “died by suicide” suggests a lack of agency in the person who did this and can over-transfer agency to survivors as people who should have and could have done more to stop this, as though that is inherently always possible. It is not.

There’s an assumption that changing the language will change the problem. If the rate of suicide is on the rise at the same time that we have witnessed the shift in language, then what does that mean? Working in the field of domestic violence has led me to prioritize above all telling it like it is, always blending together compassion and accountability—and always understanding that as we confront the heinous crime of domestic violence, we have to reconcile it with the humanity of the abuser. Likewise, we can say someone committed suicide with the utmost care and compassion.

Suicide is tangled up with so many of the same issues that are present in domestic abuse, including but not limited to negative self-talk, blame, minimization, denial, seeing oneself as the victim, quick fixes, rationalization, and isolation. As with all forms of family violence, survivors of suicide are left mired in a virulent mix of the same. And they are saddled with sadness, confusion, anger, fear, shame, self-blame, helplessness, and complicated grief.

Just as domestic violence functions as a war waged against a partner or children, suicide is a war waged against oneself. And as with any war, there are no winner; just countless casualties—because of a series of actions that are committed and that generate intense pain and agony for anyone who bears witness.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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