‘Threatened’ suicide … is it OK to say that?

TW: repeated references to suicidal feelings and the act of suicide.

After seeing this article and its headline in my Twitter timeline, I tweeted to @HuffPostUK, I’m not sure about using the word ‘threatened’, I think it adds to stigma. How about ‘considered’ or ‘risked’?

If that sounds like a case for the ‘word police’, I’ll explain why I have concerns.

I think, as I subsequently tweeted, that ‘threatened’ is too close to ‘threatening’. Sadly, too many people still conflate mental illness with being a threat to others or generally dangerous, when actually people with mental health problems are more likely to be a risk to themselves, or, be a victim of violent crime (scroll down to the section titled ‘are people with mental health problems dangerous?’.)

You could threaten to punch someone – I wouldn’t personally but I hope you see my meaning! In that context the use of the word ‘threaten’ is accurate and appropriate. It is threatening behaviour. It is possible to threaten someone – the threat may not be carried out but the person on the receiving end of the threat can feel threatened regardless.

I’m also concerned that using the word ‘threaten’ in relation to suicide may inadvertently perpetuate a dangerous myth about it – by dangerous myth, I mean a misconception that can cost lives.

Suicide is a desperate act. People consider it for various reasons. Commonly, it isn’t because they want to die, but because they can see no other escape from desperate circumstances, they’re often experiencing unbearable pain. There are many myths surrounding suicide, including the idea that people who talk about it, aren’t serious about doing it. While it’s true that not everyone who experiences suicidal feelings will go on to die by suicide, suicidal feelings should always be taken seriously. It is vital to talk about suicide, talking can and does save lives.

I attempted suicide in my thirties. I survived by fighting with myself and managing at the last moment to call for help. I had already seen my then GP that morning and been sent home, after my suicidal feelings were dismissed, to be alone with lots of medication to hand. In a desperate and distressed state I believed I’d been sent home to die. I took a massive overdose that would have proved fatal, help arrived in the nick of time. I lost consciousness just as the first paramedic entered my home. I remember nothing more until I came around in intensive care. I was told I’d had to be resusciated soon after arriving at hospital. However, because I called for help. a now ex-friend of mine decided I was an attention-seeking fraud and liberally spread word to that effect, losing me other friends in the process. That person’s reaction to my suicide attempt was the responsibility of that person, but stigma in wider society does play a part.

Stigma contributes to discrimination. As someone once said mental illness does not discriminate and nor should you. It can affect anyone. Experiencing mental health problems is no picnic, people doing so are already disadvantaged by their illness and should not have to face further disadvantage as a result of stigma.

I think the use of the word ‘threatening’ in relation to a suicidal act could perpetuate the myth that many suicide attempts are ‘fake’ or that people who are ‘threatening suicide’ are simply attention seekers, because to threaten isn’t necessarily the same as carrying out.

You can learn more in this great article from the Samaritans on myths about suicide

The media has often added to and perpetuated stigma surrounding mental illness. The infamous ‘Bonkers Bruno‘ headline immediately springs to mind, but there have been many other examples. Researching an essay about risk in terms of mental health, earlier this year, I was able to find, in a matter of moments, numerous examples of news reports where mental illness was conflated with threatening, violent and dangerous behaviour, despite their being no evidence.

As someone with a background in journalism, it might seem hypocritical of me to criticise the media. I became a journalist because I love to write, communicate and campaign. I wanted to bring stories and issues that matter to people’s attention. I wanted to help to give a voice to the voiceless. With apologies for deploying a cliche, I wanted to make a difference. I have no time for sleazy, salacious or irresponsible journalism – actually, to me, that’s not journalism; it’s just tripe.

In my youth, I considered journalism a noble profession, much like being a teacher, a doctor, nurse or lawyer … ahem. I may have been a touch naive, I was surprised that many people were not impressed when I declared my profession.

To be clear, I don’t consider the @HuffPostUK article which prompted this post to be irresponsible but I would be delighted if they and others would consider my concerns.

@HuffPostUK haven’t yet replied to my tweet. If I do receive a reply I will edit this post to include any response.

Thanks for reading, I’d welcome your thoughts. You could comment on this post or tweet me @heartsetonlivin .

Further information about and help with suicidal feelings can be found here. 

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7 thoughts on “‘Threatened’ suicide … is it OK to say that?

  1. Hi. I just wanted to say that although this is a tough topic to read about, it’s so important because the part that language plays in stigma, and the perpetuation of it, is huge. I think you were right to challenge Huuf’s use of language and I hope they respond and are more considerate of the language they use to talk about mental health as a result of you saying something.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You raise an interesting and important point here. (As you usually do) With relation to the article in question, I doubt that the young woman actually threatened anything, or anyone, at any time during the footballer’s time with her. The headline is common use of a word in an inappropriate context, and you are right to challenge it.

    When I was in the London Ambulance Service for over 22 years, I dealt with patients suffering with all forms of mental illness, on a daily basis. I can confirm that it is a fallacy that people who consider suicide, or claim to be suicidal, do not go on to either kill or seriously harm themselves. They do, The facts are there, you just have to find them. As for threatening, I have been genuinely threatened by people with schizophrenia, persecution mania, and out of control paranoia. Many of these patients were discharged from long-stay hospitals where they had spent much of their lives. Little or no infrastructure existed to support them at the time, and they were left alone and frightened in a community that they didn’t understand, and didn’t understand them in turn.

    I was threatened with stabbing, by someone holding a knife. Decapitation, by someone with a much bigger knife, and physically assaulted on many occasions, by being kicked, punched, bitten, or jumped on. However, the people concerned were not considered to be responsible for their actions. No arrests were ever made, and the end result was almost always a return to hospital care. To genuinely threaten, the person has to be aware that they are instilling fear and alarm in the possible victim. They must be in control of their faculties, and be making a considered decision. This will rarely apply to someone at the end of their tether, experiencing a psychiatric episode of some magnitude.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very true points raised here. Language is vital in how you talk about anything. It is emotive, it can persuade, and it can ultimately help or hinder a situation.

    There are so many journalists who do a great job, they work hard, produce amazing work, and do it for the right reasons. They often get drowned out by the bad ones though the lazy journalists, the scaremongers, the tabloids. My local paper is a prime example, I get super frustrated at the lazy writing, reporting, use of language. There is little or no care taken in how they report mental health, and if they can scaremonger they do.

    Liked by 1 person

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