Author: Bonnie Scarth – Department of Science Communication, University of Otago, New Zealand

This presentation centres on an ongoing discussion in suicide prevention circles: what nomenclature is most appropriate when communicating about suicide. Despite the importance of the topic, there is actually a lack of empirical evidence to support some claims regarding stigmatising language. The first part of this title comes from a quote by a participant bereaved by suicide deaths. Like others I have interviewed during my PhD research into people’s perceptions of suicide, “Kayla” noted some of the difficulties surrounding the language used by the media to cover a suicide death. On the one hand, the terms used by the media to discuss suicide are often critiqued by the public for being cryptic due to suicide’s “taboo” status. On the other hand, the colloquial language, surrounding suicide is frequently critiqued by suicide prevention experts for “sensationalizing” or “glamourizing” the act. Moreover, outmoded phraseology, such as “committed suicide” (which implies a sinful crime) is also criticised for promoting prejudice against the mentally ill, thereby maintaining a harmful taboo status that stigmatizes bereaved family members and keeps vulnerable people from seeking help. Although the negative consequences (i.e., copycat suicides) of using sensationalist or glamourizing language in the reporting of suicide are well established, there is a surprising lack of evidence involving the presumed deleterious effects of other problematic terminology, such as “committed” suicide. Given the widespread policing of these loaded terms by suicide prevention groups, this is a surprising empirical omission. This presentation showcases data from my qualitative interviews and controlled studies to examine the role of language on people’s perceptions of suicide, their openness to discussing the topic, and how motivated they would be to assist in suicide prevention efforts, depending on the language used.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Visual talk
Theme: Society
Area of interest: Applying science communication research to practice