Language Describing Suicidal Behavior

The language of suicide is expressed differently by various generations, genders, and ethnicities. The Maine Suicide Prevention Program describes suicide-related behaviors as any potentially self-injurious behavior for which evidence indicates the person intended to kill him/herself or wished to convey the appearance of intending suicide for some other reason, such as punishing others or receiving attention.

Suicide is defined as someone taking his or her own life with conscious intent by lethal means such as, a firearm, poisoning, suffocation or other self injury.

The term “committed suicide” implies a level of criminality while  “completed suicide” implies earlier attempts when there may have been none. Both terms (committed and completed) perpetuate the stigma associated with suicide and are strongly discouraged. Using the word “successful” or “failed” to describe suicide is also discouraged,  “died by suicide” or “died of suicide” as well as "suicide death" and "fatal suicide behavior" is recommended. Sensitive use of suicide related language is appreciated.

It is important to understand that suicidal behaviors occur on a continuum. The behaviors listed below reflect increasing intensity of suicidal behavior as it progresses from risky behavior to a death by suicide.

Risk-taking Thoughts and Behaviors

While not necessarily suicide-related, these ideas and actions increase the likelihood of injury or death.  These actions may include engaging in reckless sports, participating in dangerous activities, consuming large amounts of alcohol, drinking and driving, autoeroticism, etc.

Suicidal Ideation

Any self-reported thoughts or fantasies about engaging in suicide-related behavior are considered suicidal ideation. Example: A young person’s English class journal entry describing intense feelings of sadness and thoughts of suicide, death, or “ending it all.”

Suicidal Threat

Any interpersonal action, verbal or non-verbal, indicating a self-destructive desire, but stopping short of a direct self-harmful act.  A reasonable person would interpret this action as a suicide-related communication or behavior. Example: A young man threatens to kill himself if his girlfriend breaks up with him.

Suicidal Act or Suicidal Gesture

A potentially self-injurious behavior or act symbolic of suicide, that is not intended as a serious threat to life. The individual may report wanting “to see what would happen.” The act may unintentionally result in death, injuries, or no injuries.

Suicide Attempt

A non-fatal outcome for which there is evidence (either explicit or implicit) that the person believed that the act would cause death. A suicide attempt may or may not cause injuries. Attempted suicides include acts by persons whose determination to die is thwarted because they are discovered and resuscitated, or the chosen method was not lethal. The individual frequently reports that the intention was to die. DO NOT refer to a non-fatal suicide attempt, as a “failed attempt”. This term creates the illusion that dying by suicide is a good thing.

Suicide Euphoria

Sometimes depressed, despondent, angry, or agitated individuals consider, and then finalize, suicidal thoughts that may become a defined “suicide plan”. Once this occurs, the behavior in a potentially suicidal person may appear as “suicide euphoria” by an observer. This “feeling” of great happiness or well-being is based on the idea that very soon “no pain” will exist for the suicidal person.  This state of euphoria may fool helpers and gatekeepers who are thinking that a “flight into health” is taking place for the individual. Friends and families of suicide victims are often confounded with a sense that this was not a suicide because of the cheerfulness of a person expressing this euphoria. When the action of suicide is planned, the vulnerable person may actually be appear calm, and demonstrate short periods of hard to understand happiness.

Sub-intentional Death

Covert or subconscious act of placing one's self in a very vulnerable position, such as victim precipitated homicide, wandering out into oncoming traffic, or jumping out of a moving vehicle.

Suicide Pact

Suicides of two or more individuals (close friends, lovers, etc.) as a result of an agreement to complete a self-destructive act together, or separately but closely timed. Suicide pacts are a very real part of suicidology and historically are represented in fiction as well as fact.

Contagion or “Copy-Cat” Suicide

A term used to describe how exposure to suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to attempt or die by suicide. Some forms of non-fictional media coverage of suicide are associated with a statistically significant increase of suicide among others exposed to the media coverage. The occurrence of copycat suicide appears to be strongest among adolescents. Community and media education is vitally important to reduce this risk.

Suicide Clusters

A suicide cluster may be defined as a group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occur closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.

Murder-Suicide

Not to be confused with a suicide pact, this is an event in which one individual murders one or more people and then takes his or her own life. The murder victims may be family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers.

Victim Precipitated Homicide also known as Suicide by Cop

Also referred to as “police assisted suicide” or “victim precipitated homicide,” this phrase can mean very different things. An individual may intentionally place him/herself in a very dangerous situation by displaying threatening behaviors to which a police officer responds and may be required to react with deadly force. Another scenario may involve a police officer wanting to end his/her life and sets up colleagues on the job to “take them out.” More frequently law enforcement officers who die by suicide do so in a manner to spare their colleagues, and with a perceived degree of dignity. All of these behaviors are very difficult for police officers.

Suicide Survivor(s)

This term is used in two ways. One describes someone who survives a suicide attempt. The second describes family members and close friends of a person who has died by suicide.  Be sure to clarify the use of this term.

Self-Injury

Self-injury is defined as a deliberate and usually repetitive destruction or alteration of one’s own body tissue, without suicidal intent. Other terms used to describe this behavior include cutting, self-harm, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence, and auto-aggression. It appears that self-harm reaches across the boundaries of race, gender, education, sexual preference, and socioeconomic bracket. While difficult to distinguish from a suicide attempt, it is important to understand that the person engaging in this behavior does not necessarily intend to die as a result of their actions. A self-injurying individual uses this behavior to get relief from intense emotions, to calm and soothe themselves. It is possible for self-injury to result in unintentional death. It is also possible for suicidal and self-injurying behaviors to co-exist in one person.