By De Elizabeth and Lauren Rearick
As the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, suicide remains an ongoing topic in the mental health community, and around the world. With more than 43 million American adults currently dealing with mental illness, the importance of how we talk about suicide has once again come to light in the wake of three highly publicized deaths, all within the span of a week: those of Sydney Aiello, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; a second, currently unnamed Parkland student; and Jeremy Richman, a 49-year-old father of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim.
All three deaths were reported on within the same week, but it’s not possible to know if there was a link between each incident beyond the fact that all three people were impacted by gun violence at some point in their lives. For his part, Richman founded the Avielle Foundation in honor of his daughter, who was among the 20 students and 7 adults killed at Sandy Hook in 2012. The non-profit organization was created to “prevent violence by building compassion through brain research, community engagement, and education.” And Sydney’s mother, Cara Aiello, told CBS Miami that her daughter had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder following the 2018 attack at MSDHS, noting Sydney remained fearful of encountering another act of gun violence. She added that she wants her daughter’s struggles to help others, and she reminded community members to seek help if they needed it.
Finding that help isn’t always easy, especially for young people with limited resources. “About halfway through my freshman year of college, I realized I was struggling with mental health,” a 20-year-old named Delaney told MTV News. Although her school provided counseling, there was a waitlist. “I was advised to go out into the community to seek out a therapist,” she explained. “I was fortunate enough to be able do do that, but I know that not everyone is.” Most mental health programs prioritize helping those with suicidal ideations if they can, but people should feel empowered to seek help at the first sign of stress, whether minor or dire.
And to point to PTSD, or one specific incident alone, as the sole cause of a suicide can dangerously oversimplify suicide and suicidal ideation, and leave many gun violence survivors feeling hopeless. Surviving a school shooting can certainly be disruptive to someone’s mental health, and such an event can understandably cause lasting trauma. However, a host of issues contribute to instances of suicide, which is why it is imperative that those dealing with suicidal ideation feel safe enough to ask for help, and that our society at large is better equipped to talk about suicide, and provide support and resources to those experiencing ideations.
“What we know to be true is that if somebody dies by suicide in a specific community ... then the other folks in that community are at a much higher risk for also dying by suicide. And that's why the word contagion comes up in this conversation,” Chris Bright, Director of Public Training for The Trevor Project, told MTV News. “For vulnerable populations ... the exposure to inappropriate ways of talking about suicide or inappropriate depictions of suicide puts them at a higher risk for attempting suicide after that exposure.” For that reason, Trevor Project offers a variety of resources for young people who might be struggling with suicidal ideation, including both a phone and text hotline, as well as a chat service.
Melissa McCormick, a licensed mental health counselor in Longwood, Florida, also told MTV News that people should avoid sharing specific details of how someone died. “When someone can envision details of a traumatic event, they can imagine it more thoroughly, and are more likely to struggle with trauma responses,” McCormick said.
The three recent deaths have received a lot of media coverage, but not all reporting has been responsible, with many outlets using troubling language to describe the events. (MTV News is choosing not to link to the stories in question in order to minimize the chances of contagion.)
But the responsibility extends beyond reporters; through social media, we have the ability to share information instantaneously with followers and friends alike. While posting news stories of highly publicized suicides is often done in good faith, such efforts can sometimes have an adverse effect. We don’t know who within our online circles might be struggling, and stories that simply relay details of suicides without any hope or information for prevention can be hugely damaging, especially if dangerous language is used.
Both Bright and McCormick note that we should never use the phrase “committed suicide” when talking about someone’s death; rather, it’s important to say “died by suicide," as HuffPost points out.
Bright posed the question: “When do you normally hear the phrase ‘committed?’ The answer is, you usually hear it in regards to a crime... You don’t often hear it in ways that have positive connotations. So when you use that word, you’re further stigmatizing something that is already hard to talk about.”
“Died by suicide,” in opposition, is neutral. “It's just a very factual way to talk about something that isn't stigmatized,” Bright said. “It doesn't use words that make people afraid.” McCormick added that making these conscious word choices “shows the importance of shifting our perspective on suicide.”
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t discuss suicide at all; in fact, it’s just the opposite. We must discuss it, both in order to continue to lower stigma, but also to reassure other people that they aren’t alone.
And that’s why it’s more crucial than ever to have the proper tools to discuss suicide safely and productively. Our words matter, and by using the right language, we can create a safer environment for those struggling with suicidal ideation. Responsible conversations can empower people to ask for help; sometimes, it’s just as simple as sharing information about suicide prevention, or telling a friend that you’re there to listen. But it’s also crucial that people feel they have access to seek professional help should they need it, without stigma; in some cases, you might not be equipped to help someone in the way a counselor or a doctor can, and the best way you can be there them is by supporting them while they find the care they need.
“Trauma and loss don’t just go away, you have to learn to live with it through getting support,” David Hogg, a member of March for Our Lives, the student-led organization dedicated to gun reform, wrote on Twitter. “We should be spending all the money politicians want to spend on arming teachers on something that will actually save lives, like mental health care in our schools.”
There are also online resources available for people experiencing suicidal ideation, and those who want to learn more about how to properly discuss suicide. Half of Us, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the Trans Lifeline also offer support services through telephone hotlines (call 1-800-273-TALK), while the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education offer online resources. The National Alliance for Mental Illness helpline can help provide answers to questions about treatment options; though they do not provide therapy or recommend individualized recommendations for therapists in your area, they may be able to help point callers in the right direction. The American Psychological Association also provides resources and databases for those seeking professional help.
“Young people should be able to talk about suicide,” Bright emphasized to MTV News. “They should be able to talk about their feelings and the things that they have going on in their lives, and they want to be able to identify the friends who are going to handle that type of conversation with respect, dignity, and support.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.