Talking About Suicide: The Challenge of Finding a Definition

What is suicide?  The question seems to be simple, but finding a proper answer is a challenge.  In the scientific literature, at least 15 different definitions exist for the word “suicide” (Silverman, 2006).  What makes it so hard to find a proper definition?  Why do even scientist struggle with the word “suicide”?

The reason that it is so hard to find a definition is the obscurity and confusion about the related terminologies, such as “suicidality”, “suicide attempt” and “intent to die” (Silverman, 2013).  For example, it is unclear what suicidality actually means.  Even though the term indicates that a person is in the state of being suicidal, it is not clear whether the term refers to the state of intent, planning, execution or post action and recovery.  Therefore, it is possible to equate it with cognition, behaviour, emotion or the combination of any of them.  The result is that it makes it certainly confusing to talk about suicidality.

The same issue comes up in relation to suicide attempt.  What does it mean to attempt suicide?  Often,  the idea of attempt is connected to the idea of having an intent to die.  However, many suicidal individuals do not actually plan to die.  Often, being suicidal is a call for help rather than a death wish.  Therefore, connecting suicide attempt with the action of dying may be misleading.

Finding a proper understanding of the “intent to die” is just as, if not more, challenging.  Some people may harm themselves who are not suicidal at all.  For example, according to Scientific American, self-cutting, self-burning or self-beating can be a form of pain relief for people with a chronic pain condition.  Self-injury can make the brain release an extra amount of endorphins to ease the pain.  This means that people who may injure themselves are not necessarily suicidal.  In addition, intent is a state of mind that cannot be scientifically easily measured and some people may not want to admit to having wanted to die when injuring themselves. The feeling of embarrassment, shame or fear may cause them to lie about the event.  It means that it is difficult to see, understand or measure intent.

Without clarity about the terminologies related to suicide, it is difficult to define the word itself.  But, why does having a definition matter?  It matters because, without a proper definition, suicide may be underreported, researchers may misunderstand each other’s studies, and health professionals may be cross-talking and unable to save all those at risks.

It can only be hoped that more attention and resources will be allocated to the importance of finding a proper and acceptable definition in order to make a difference in the lives of those who are suicidal.

M.J. Mandoki


Print Resources

Silverman, M. M. (2006).  The language of suicidology. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 36, 519-532.

Silverman, M. M. (2013). Defining suicide and suicidal behavior. In D. Lester & J. R. Rogers (eds.), Suicide: A Global Issue. pp. 1-30. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Downtown London restaurant changes menu to support mental health

Article from CBC London: Link

Mark Henshaw was reciting familiar dinner options to the table he was serving at a popular downtown restaurant when one word on the menu left a bad taste in his mouth – suicide.

It was used to describe one of four flavour options at Thaifoon Restaurant, which has been a mainstay on Dundas Street for more than a decade.

“It’s much more than just a word,” he said. “Suicide is not a spice. Suicide is a very dark experience that some of us have gone through in our lives.”

Upon reading the menu two weeks ago, Henshaw went into a dark spiral of thoughts, remembering his own grandfather and two high school friends who died by suicide.

He even recalled a darker time when he suffered with severe mental health issues. He was afraid customers could also be negatively affected by what he described as being a trigger word.

“When people hear these words and associate it with an experience that was difficult for them, they’re likely going to get anxious, which will make them uncomfortable and stressed,” he said.

Menu changes

Henshaw approached his manager who didn’t hesitate to change the menu option prior to World Suicide Prevention Day on Sunday.

“When I first had these menus printed (in 2014), it never really occurred to me and I don’t think other restaurant owners even think about it,” said Fouzan Beg, the owner of the restaurant.

“It’s such a negative word. Food is such a beautiful thing and associating such a positive thing with such a negative thing doesn’t click.”

Fouzan is reprinting about 5,000 take-out and 100 in-store menus with the word “Thai fire” instead of “suicide.”

Now, he wants other restaurants, and especially eateries that sell wings, to take a similar approach.

‘You have to be sensitive’

Marion Whitfield, who’s the co-chair of the London Middlesex Suicide Prevention council, said many outlets, including restaurants, are famous for misusing trigger words

“I’ve seen it in commercials. I’ve seen it on TV. I’ve seen it in books and some articles in the paper,” she said of the word “suicide” being used as an expressive sentiment.

“You have to be sensitive. You have to really and truly try and stop and think before saying and writing stuff.”

Whitfield said many restaurants could be afraid to remove the word suicide from their menus because it’s a common expression used to describe a spice.

However, both Whitfield and staff at Thaifoon hope that the small actions of one family-owned restaurant will encourage other outlets — and chains — to follow suit.

“This is a small thing. This is words on a page,” said Henshaw. “But, it’s something that could change the way people (think) about something and that’s so powerful.”

2017 Professional Development Day

Postvention: A Community Response in the Aftermath of Suicide

When: Friday Feb 24th, 2017


Goodwill Building, 3rd Floor, 255 Horton Street London, ON

Time: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm (registration begins at 9am)

Cost: $125/p (includes lunch & refreshments)

Payment due upon registration

This trauma informed workshop is intended to provide an overview of grieving in the wake of a death by suicide.  Participants will learn

  • 1) Contemporary approaches to the grieving process
  • 2) Understanding the effects of trauma
  • 3) Exploring the unique features of suicide bereavement
  • 4) Learn the compassionate formula for “healing in helping”

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2016 Annual Professional Development Day

The “ASK” Workshop

Assessing for Suicide in Kids

What you will learn:

  1. What do young children really understand about death and/or suicide?
  2. Children may consciously or unconsciously signal that they are at risk for suicide;
  3. How to talk with a child about death and suicide;
  4. New research exists about risk factors, protective factors, and how they interact;
  5. How to use what you learn about risk and protective factors to begin safety planning;
  6. How to work with parents and other helpers to increase safety;
  7. Advocating for a child at risk of suicide.

Continue reading “2016 Annual Professional Development Day”