When working to prevent suicide or respond to suicide losses, language matters. It can create confusion if we aren’t using similar definitions, and at worst, it can cause stigma and and shame for those who are experiencing suicide thoughts, attempts and/or a death by suicide. For those facing suicide, healing cannot begin in an environment of fear, shame, and silence. Words matter. People matter. Removing stigma helps us begin wrapping our arms around people with compassion and understanding. To learn more about language, see this blog post.
Instead of these
Died by suicide
Took their own life
“blew their brains out”
“took the easy way out”
Suicide (or fatal suicide)
Non-fatal suicide attempt
Manipulative act or “threatened” suicide
Someone grieving suicide
Definitions of Common Language
For clarity, ISPN offers definitions of the most commonly used language in the table below.
CIT – Crisis Intervention Team
Typically teams of law enforcement officers and others in the correctional system who receive specific training in mental health (including suicide) to de-escalate situations where a person is facing a mental health crisis. The goal is to have a safe resolution of crisis situations involving individuals living with mental illness, and to divert these individuals away from the criminal justice system and into treatment where recovery can begin.
Died by suicide
Death from a self-inflicted act (e.g., injury, poisoning, or suffocation) where there is evidence that the act was intentional. No longer is the phrase “committed suicide” acceptable.
A program/intervention that is included in a national registry of evidence-based interventions, such as the Evidence-Based Practices Resource Center OR the program/intervention produced positive effects on the primary targeted outcome, and these findings are reported in a peer-reviewed journal OR the program/intervention has documented evidence of effectiveness, based on guidelines developed by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and/or the state, tribe, or jurisdiction in which the program/intervention took place.
The care of people thinking of suicide by peers, loved ones, certified peer specialists, consumer-operated services, licensed mental health caregivers, health care providers, and other caregivers with individually tailored strategies designed to support, empower, respect, and change the behavior, mood, and/or environment of individuals, and help them identify and satisfy their needs without engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) Teams are an active model of postvention. The team is made up of suicide survivors and professional caregivers who have been trained to assist the bereaved typically at the scene of a suicide by providing support and referrals.
A state of mental and emotional wellbeing that can impact choices, actions, and relationships that affect wellness. Mental health, like physical health, can be unhealthy or healthy. Behavioral health problems include mental and substance use disorders.
Mobile crisis or intervention team
A team of behavioral health care providers, including a peer support person with lived experience, that provide professional, community-based, crisis intervention services, including, but not limited to, de-escalation and stabilization for individuals who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis.
Person with lived experience
A person who has experienced a suicide attempt, suicidal thoughts and feelings, or a suicide loss. Their experience is valuable for staying safe from suicide, helping others through their struggles, and for developing/maintaining programming. Learn more here.
Suicide postvention is a crisis intervention strategy designed to reduce the risk of suicide and suicide contagion, provide the support needed to help loss survivors cope with a suicide death, address the social stigma associated with suicide, and disseminate factual information after the suicide death.
Programs, interventions, or efforts designed to stop suicide attempts or deaths from occurring by focusing efforts on individuals at risk of suicide, environmental safeguards, reducing the availability of lethal methods, policy, and systems reform.
Protective factors for suicide
Most commonly refers to attributes/characteristics which protect an individual or community from a suicide attempt and lower that person’s/community’s risk.
A psychiatric evaluation to determine risk for suicide, conducted by the appropriate professionals. This assessment is designed to elicit information regarding a person’s intent to die by suicide, previous history of suicide attempts, presence of a suicide plan and its level of lethality and availability, presence of support systems, and level of hopelessness and helplessness, mental status, and other relevant risk factors.
Risk factors for suicide
Characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life. Suicide risk tends to be highest when someone has several risk factors at the same time. Risk factors may encompass biological, psychological, and or social factors in the individual, family, and environment.
A detailed, written plan that supports and guides someone when they are experiencing thoughts of suicide, to help them avoid a state of intense suicidal crisis. Anyone in a trusting relationship with the person considering suicide can help draft the plan; they do not need to be a professional.
Safety plans include: their personal warning signs, coping strategies that have worked for them in the past, and/or strategies they think may work in the future, people who are sources of support in their lives (friends, family, professionals, crisis supports), how means of suicide can be removed from their environment, and their personal reasons for living, or what has helped them stay alive.
Self-harm/self-injury (not related to suicide)
Behavior that is self-directed and deliberately results in injury or the potential for injury to oneself (usually undertaken to feel better, relieve emotional pain) . It is often called nonsuicidal self-injury or NSSI. Learn more.
Death caused by self-inflicted behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. Note: The coroner’s or medical examiner’s office must first confirm that the death was a suicide before any official may state this as the cause of death.
A self-injurious act for which there is evidence that the person had at least some intent to kill themself as a result of the act. A suicide attempt may result in death (fatal suicide attempt/suicide death), injuries, or no injuries. A mixture of ambivalent feelings such as wish to die and desire to live is a common experience with most suicide attempts. Therefore, ambivalence is not a sign of a less serious or less dangerous suicide attempt.
Suicide attempt survivor
A person who has experience with suicidal thinking and behaviors including individuals who have survived a suicide attempt.
These behaviors include suicide attempts, intentional injury to self, associated with at least some level of intent, developing a plan or strategy for suicide, writing a suicide note, gathering the means for a suicide plan, or any other overt action or thought indicating intent to end one’s life even if the behavior is interrupted or abandoned.
Thinking about, considering, or planning to end one’s life via self-injurious behavior which may result in death. A desire to be dead without a plan or intent to end one’s life is still considered suicidal ideation and should be taken seriously.
Suicide loss survivor/ survivor of suicide loss
A person who has lost a loved one to suicide. Historically this term has been used to describe people who were emotionally close and/or related to the person who died. The phrase can be shortened to “survivor”.
A standardized instrument or protocol used to identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide. Suicide screening can be done independently or as part of a more comprehensive health or behavioral health screening. Screening may be done orally (with the screener asking questions), with pencil and paper, or using a computer. The Columbia – Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) screener can be used by anyone. A screener is not an assessment (see above). Learn more.