Death by Word Choice

The tragic way we talk about mental illness deaths

An obituary might read, “John Adams lost his ten year battle with cancer,” but will never say, “Joe Smith lost his life-long battle with mental illness.”

Statistics talk about deaths from heart disease, cancer and obesity, but not from depression, bipolar disorder, or anorexia. These deaths are referred to as suicides, which comes with a mountain of negative connotations and built-in bias.

The words suicide is related to the words homicide, genocide, and patricide.

-cide: denotes a person or substance that kills and also denotes an act of killing

These are words associated with crimes, abominal acts condemned by society. These are crimes punishable by imprisonment or death. (We will sidestep for the purposes of this post the irony of imposing the death penalty for homicide when suicide is punishable by imprisonment in some countries and was illegal in some U.S. states up to the 80s and 90s. As if attempting suicide wasn’t suffering enough.)

People commit crimes. And while losing a battle with mental illness is incredibly tragic, it shouldn’t be that the language used says we “commit suicide”. This sentiment is not appropriate to people who are suffering. We don’t say someone comitted illness – comitted cancer, comitted heart attack. We say they succumbed to heart disease. They lost their battle with cancer.

People with mental illness who suffer every minute of every day until they literally can’t stand it any more – we say they gave up. They failed. They were selfish.


This is how we talk about suicide, and then we’re suprised when someone we love suddenly commits suicide with no sign or symptoms. If someone told you that something you were thinking about doing was terrible, selfish, or inconceivable, would you be willing to talk to them about it?

As more and more people open up about their struggles with mental illness, we must also change the words we use to talk about it. We need to be careful to differentiate between “depressed” and “sad”, to stop making jokes about “being so embarassed we could just die”, or “oh god, I could kill myself”.

“Schizo” is not an insult to casually throw around.

It should be clear that a “panic attack” is not something a person without mental illness has because they saw a spider or somebody scared them. People are not bipolar because they feel happy about something one minute and then the next minute something else makes them sad. “Schizo” is not an insult to casually throw around. Making jokes about slashing your wrists or cutting yourself because your bored or not looking forward to something, can be incredibly hurtful to someone has struggled with self-harm.

Our words matter. And they matter even more to the people who are actually experiencing depression, anxiety, panic disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, self-harming behavior, and eating disorders.



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