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When it comes to suicide, words can definitely harm us

  • Letter3
In the wake of the tragic death of Adam Seef, it’s worth keeping in mind the power of words. Although the outpouring of compassion and calls for understanding have opened up important discussions about mental health, gender, and sexual identity, I read references a number of times to Adam having “committed” suicide. This phrase is outdated, and laden with stigma and blame.
by Simonne Horwitz, Johannesburg | Jul 11, 2019

The term “committed”, even subconsciously, is associated with “committing a crime” or “committing a sin”. It ignores the fact that suicide is the result of an underlying illness (depression, bi-polar, anxiety, or post-traumatic-stress disorder) and should be regarded the same way as any physical health issue or condition.

It’s more accurate to talk about a person as having “died by/of suicide” as one might die of a heart attack. More compassionately, we should talk about a person being a “victim of suicide” because the person is a victim, not a perpetrator. If we are going to have discussions about mental health and suicide that have an impact, it’s fundamentally important that we do what we can, in big and small ways, to remove stigma.

By the same token, when dealing with issues of gender and sexual identity, everyday language is important if we are to create a safe-space in which people feel they can “come-out” and live as their authentic selves. For those of us who are part of the LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, or Questioning) community, we hear homophobic statements around us every day. Young people have become acclimatised to slang such as “that’s so gay” which, while perhaps not said specifically to be hurtful, is always pejorative. We are surrounded by heteronormative language that repetitively reinforces the fact that we are “different”. We are constantly confronted with the assumption that we will date and marry someone of the opposite gender; we fill in forms that assume heterosexuality; and when we open a magazine or switch on the TV, we rarely see people who reflect our realities.

This environment is specifically difficult for those who are struggling with their sexuality, and who have yet to come out.

Paying attention to our language is something that each of us can do to reduce stigma, and make the world that much easier for those who are going through so much.


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