Language use and suicide: An online cross-sectional survey

PLoS One. 2019 Jun 13;14(6):e0217473. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0217473. eCollection 2019.


Background: There has been a recent focus on language use in relation to suicide, with concerns raised about the potential to cause distress, perpetuate stigma and discourage help-seeking. While some terms are promoted as more sensitive than others, empirical research exploring the views of people affected by suicide to inform academic and media guidelines is lacking.

Methods: An anonymous, cross-sectional online survey was promoted opportunistically via online channels. Participation was requested from adults affected by suicide. Participants were asked to rate descriptors pertaining to suicidal behaviour according to perceived acceptability. A descriptive analysis of quantitative data was conducted alongside thematic content analysis of free-text data.

Outcomes: There were 2,719 responses, of which 1,679 (61·8%) were complete. Of phrases describing non-fatal suicidal behaviour, "attempted suicide" had the highest median acceptability score. Of phrases describing fatal suicidal behaviour, "took their own life" and "died by suicide" had the highest median acceptability scores. The scores for "commit suicide" were most variable and spanned the range of acceptability scores. Free text data illustrated the nuances in decision-making.

Interpretation: Variation in opinion exists amongst people affected by suicide regarding most phrases, often depending on contextual factors. "Attempted suicide", "took their own life", "died by suicide" and "ended their life" were however considered most acceptable. We argue that academic and media guidelines should promote use of these phrases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Stigma
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide, Attempted / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires / statistics & numerical data
  • Young Adult