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.