A Linguist on ‘suicidality’

Here is a link to an interesting piece on how to refer to a person’s suicidal death. I think it’s great. The authors point to a number of important issues and make some useful suggestions and I agree with them. The problem is that in my view (which I have already expressed here), they don’t go far enough, focusing mostly on the ‘suicide vocabulary’. And here a linguist in me wakes up. But as I have already written about it, instead of repeating myself, I would like to do something else. Singer and Erreger provide what they consider a preferred way of describing a client’s suicidal death, I would like to re-write it.

The authors provide us with this:

What a week. My long-term client, Harry, died by suicide after several previous attempts. Despite many efforts to explore the reasons for his past attempts, he still could not communicate his pain any other way.  I was shocked because just last week, he said “no” when I asked him if he had any thoughts of killing himself. Then the associate director said, “You have to review Harry’s chart for the past year.” And in my head, I thought, “I’d rather do anything other than chart review.” Then the unit director sends us an e-mail to be on the lookout for other people who are suicidal. I can’t say “no,” because then I wouldn’t be considered for the supervisor position. It is ironic that Harry killed himself in part because he thought no one cared if he lived or died, and yet his death has been devastating for so many people. Instead of reaching out to these folks, I’m stuck inside doing chart review.

I suggest writing something like this (I omit a few things, focusing on the client only):

Harry, who had seen me (or is it: I had seen him?) for many years, took his life, after trying a number of times earlier. Even though I encouraged him to explore why he had attempted to take his life, he did not talk about it. I was shocked because just last week, he said “no” when I asked whether he had thought of killing himself. (…) Then the unit director sent us an e-mail to be on the lookout for other who people think (want, intend?) to take their lives. (…) It is ironic that Harry killed himself in part because he might have thought no one cared if he lived or died, yet his death was probably devastating for some people.


There are a number of significant changes I have made and I would like to account for them. However, please take my comments as points for consideration or discussion.

Let me start with two general points. First, I prefer to focus on observable things, in other words, on what people do. Medical, psychological, suicidological language tends to describe things. In other words, rather than talking about me thinking, psychologists prefer to speak of my thoughts. I don’t like it.  Also, second, I prefer to talk about what people do and not about what they are, especially if it means giving them institutional identities.

So, instead of making Harry a ‘long-term’ client, I prefer saying that he had seen the social worker (or is it the other way round?).  Note that I changed ‘died by suicide’ to ‘killed himself’, I could have said ‘completed suicide’ (but I don’t like it, as it carries positive connotations), because I want to suggest that he did it. Suicide is not something that happens, it is done!

I changed ‘efforts to explore’. Whose efforts? The worker’s, Harry’s? My text clarifies it immediately. Also I deleted ‘could not communicate’. How do we know this? All we know is that Harry didn’t talk (I dislike talking about ‘communication’, to be frank, I don’t know what it is in real-life contexts). I also removed ‘thoughts of killing himself’, I prefer to say that people ‘think’, and not ‘have thoughts. You know, they do thinking! It’s an action.

And here we come to the expression I have most problems with: ‘suicidal people’. I don’t know who ‘suicidal people’ are. Are they those who think of suicide? Or perhaps want to die, or perhaps intend to kill themselves? Which one is it? Incidentally, I have already written about it with Justyna Ziolkowska.  We showed how complex and heterogeneous of ‘suicidal thoughts’. Here is a link to our article (please contact me for a copy, if you want it).

I also prefer ‘might have thought’ in the last sentence, not just ‘thought’. What is the evidence of what he actually did think? The same goes for the insertion of ‘probably’. Let’s not pass our assumptions (however sensible) as facts.

So, there you are. Here is a linguist’s take on ‘suicidality’ (yes, I want the quotes, I dislike making attributes of actions). Is this the ultimate answer to how to talk about suicide? Of course, it’s not. This is my contribution to a debate on how to use language. It’s also a bid to offer further reflections on what it means to use language in a clinical or quasi-clinical setting. It goes way beyond vocabulary.

Singer and Erreger are right in drawing our attention to issues of how to talk about dramatic, distressing, stigmatising events.  I applaud their article. But linguistics (more specifically, discourse analysis) can support them in what I think is a fuller reflection on where we want to go.


  1. Dariusz – I’m honored that you would spend your valuable time writing a response to the #LanguageMatters article that Sean Erreger and I wrote for New Social Worker magazine.

    Your re-write of our paragraph is in many ways superior to the original. I love the idea of referring to Harry as someone whom I have “seen” rather than a client (long-term or otherwise). We debated using “client” in the original, but decided to include it because if the reader is a social service provider it signals that this is someone involved in the mental health system vs. medical system (which uses the term “patient.”). Although the term “client” is not used in organizations with a recovery framework, it is still the most common way to identify someone as a service user.

    Your re-write also points to the unfortunate use of passive voice that is so common in social science writing. Or should I say, we use passive voice far more often than we should. I am totally on board with “killed himself.” I also like the phrase “died by suicide” because it provides a parallel to the way we speak about death by other forms of illness. For example, “Did you hear that Frank died from cancer?”

    I’m grateful for your thoughtfulness. I will use your post when I assign the article to my students. Thank you for influencing the next generation of social workers.

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      Jonathan, thank you very much for your kind words. The most has actually been done by you and Sam! As people are more and more aware of the langauge we use, you showed a very useful way forward! What I wanted to show is that linguists can help you achieve what I perceive as your goal of talking and writing in MH/suicide settings which helps us understand what happened better.

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