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What's in a Word? Friday March 18, 2016

I don't need to tell you how important words are; why they're written, how they're written and how they're perceived. They bring us together and they set us apart in ways we cannot always conceive when we use them.

I'm saying this because a couple of years ago, a US programme arrived in the UK, the Zero Suicide Initiative; with the fantastic aim of developing fresh approaches to preventing suicide with multi-agency input (e.g. NHS, police, charities, those who had attempted suicide and the bereaved). It was championed by the Lib Dems in the previous government and led to pilot areas being set up around the country. It's doing some great things on minimal funds, but I have always found it hard to get past that word zero, which has coloured my view of the project.

To me it's saying that unlike cancer, heart disease or myriad other ways that eventually kill us all, suicide is one death that is 100% avoidable. But it isn't and it never will be, so why have such an unattainable aspiration that sets people up to fail? Why use language that still makes mental illness other, different, apart? Why add to the stigma and loss for those left behind? Because to my mind using the word zero does all of those things and I'm sure that wasn't the aim of the people who started the initiative.

So what to do about it? Well, have a grumble (I can tick that off the list). Ask that zero be replaced with something else. Or maybe I should just get over myself. After all, it is just a word, it got a huge amount of publicity for the initiative, and the extremely important point is that very committed professionals and volunteers are working together around the country to prevent suicide, improve quality of life and recovery rates. Take this wonderful group, survivors of suicide attempts in Devon, who have been given a voice thanks to a zero suicide initiative in the South West. They used it to craft a letter for anyone who is thinking of taking their own life. It's called A Letter of Hope.

Meanwhile for those who have a loved one suffering from suicidal desires and are struggling to know what to do, there are increasing online resources which you might find useful in the UK and beyond - I thought Metanoia, an Australian website, talked a lot of sense. Please post in the comments below if you know any others that you would recommend.

A View From the Far Side
A Moodscope member.

Thoughts on the above? Please feel free to post a comment below.

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Zareen Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 6:45am

Thanks very much for this. It is a very helpful & useful resource. I am a Cruse Bereavement supporter & one of my previous clients will find this a very helpful resource. A valuable resource. I will text & recommend that the person signs up for Moodscope. Thanks once again for the blog.

John Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 6:51am

Hi AVftFS, The key sentence in your piece, for me, is "But it isn't and it never will be, so why have such an unattainable aspiration that sets people up to fail?" As an organizational consultant and personal coach I would accept a client's vision of zero of something. I liken a vision to a North star, we set our course by it and know it may be too far out of reach to ever actually attain. The success is in narrowing the gaps, usually via a balance of positive and negative numbers: this year's campaign to check-in once a fortnight with friends who live alone clocked so many emails, texts, calls, and visits. The suicide rate also dropped X.X percent.
¶ I'm particularly aware today of reaching for zero because I learned this morning a friend committed suicide. Her body was found on Tuesday in her garage. Self-death by hanging. Last I knew she was getting help with counseling and pharma. She'd had a mental break down last fall and spent a couple of week involuntarily confined.
¶ While confined, she had several friends running around the city doing her bidding. I bought a portable, loud, boom box and batteries. And art supplies. Us friends were put into contact to coordinate. But we didn't go deep enough for her post-hospital care. With seven friends, each could take a day a week to call and check in. Or some other idea. Clearly, the effort to keep her here needed to come from others as her will to live drained to nothing.

Ella Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 12:52pm

I feel very sad for you, a gutting loss. I think you hit on a very pertinent point...every individual circumstance will throw up a different result and sometimes we are actively prevented from putting all the clues together. I like your idea of the North Star, I understand that. Though, like the original poster I think some honesty in the aim is needed. Sadly our media encourages polarised shock language to make a point, rather than a more considered approach which doesn't grab attention.

A View from the Far Side Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:07pm

Hi John, thank you for your post. I'm sorry to hear about your friend. That must feel very raw. I do hope none of you feel responsible for her death, however, because you aren’t. I’m glad the zero analogy works for you and that you’ve had success with it, but personally I prefer different words, such as The Campaign Against Living Miserably, because the emphasis is on finding the tools to have a good life. In the end, I think we have to use the words we feel most comfortable with.

John Sat, Mar 19th 2016 @ 5:06pm

@Ella,@A View, I feel your compassion for my friend's hidden agony. ¶ Names and words are chosen by people. I've found that I like them best when I get involved. So, a current name can be "rebranded" if members or leadership in the organization see the benefits. I have been a naming consultant, so Zero Suicides would not be one I would have allowed. But it's done and I get what's it is trying to say. ¶ My preference is for a name that evokes the positive, is under 11 letters, & four syllables max. When the National Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution renamed itself PeaceWeb, I said, 'well done.'###

Mary S Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 6:53am

I always think the focus seems to be on preventing suicide (=job done!) when it should be on preventing people WANTING to suicide

Norman Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 12:02pm

Hi Mary S., it's a bit like the drugs situation. Everything is focussed on cutting off the supply and no-one is asking what is wrong with our society that so many people can't face it and get off their heads instead.

A View from the Far Side Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:10pm

Hi Mary S, is it about people 'wanting' to suicide though? Having seen what my husband went through I'd say that he wanted to kill the canker or cancer in his head, because it was intolerable to live with, and unfortunately that meant he died too. That's the analogy a doctor once used when we were chatting and I felt she'd absolutely got it (in this particular instance at least).

Adam Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 8:03am

Thank you for the link to the Letter of Hope. It is definitely worth reading and sharing.

Anonymous Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 8:17am

Hello. I know your blog today is not about the use of language but I do agree that the wrong word can often ruin the meaning intended. I have experience of suicide only as an official prison visitor in the prison environment and it was known that one suicide would inevitably be followed by another inmate committing suicide. They were seen as copycat suicides.I found this so disturbing and still do.Julx

A View from the Far Side Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:13pm

Hi Jul, you'll be pleased to hear then there is work going on around copycat suicides to find ways to reduce them. It's about identifying vulnerable people affected by the suicide and finding ways to support them. It's outside prisons, but do you think this would work in a prison context?

Ella Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 12:43pm

Thank you for raising this. In addition to your excellent points....
whilst I think that every death is a personal tragedy for those close, one of the things I dislike about many well-meaning initiatives, this one included, is the modern attitude that it is always right to prevent death. I think we've lost the acceptance that death is an integral part of life -whatever the circumstances. Our lives are poorer when we can't accept death as part of our human experience. For me religion is not part of this. I don't personally like organised religion though I accept every individual's own personal spiritual belief, my own belief being that everything would be better with tolerance for difference. For these reasons I think it is misguided to attempt to eradicate death altogether and I think it raises false expectations of power and control over others.

Lexi Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 1:13pm

I agree with you. The first thing that came to mind is the association we have with the word zero in the U.S. - a nothing, a nobody. And we don't need to be reminded of feeling like nothing - we can do that all on our own, thanks very much! In the U.S. we have a wonderful outreach program called American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( They have done and continue to do so much to raise awareness about depression and suicide prevention, and they offer resources to those survivors of suicides - the ones left behind.

Anonymous Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 1:27pm

Well said Lexi and Ella. I don't know what it's like to seriously consider taking ones own life but I always think about the people whom I would leave behind. How devastated they would be. How ultimately hurtful it is to commit suicide. I feel too that depressed people, most of us anyway don't want to continue being depressed and the main reason for this is the effect we can have on our families and friends. We will do anything to get help and not to appear depressed.To get better. We are constantly searching and will never give up. We will try anything, medication, counselling, talking , self help books but not suicide as that is the ultimate rejection of our families and the help available.But as I said I don't know or if I'm speaking out of line or offending anyone. I hope not.

A View from the Far Side Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:29pm

Not offended at all, but I don't see my husband's death as having anything to do with anyone else or that it was hurtful to me. I get angry with the illness, but not him. He was in intolerable pain and wanted to end it. Think of someone having a massive heart attack with unending waves of pain or someone with cancer where the pain is just intolerable, even with opiates. That's the kind of pain he was experiencing.

The Gardener Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:50pm

When life gets too grim I usually cope by writing to long-suffering friends. End of tether other day and phoned SOS - recorded message - overwhelmed, please try later. Can't contact Samaritans from France. My friend who seems to permanently feel suicidal should get help from her church, she is a devout Catholic. But it seems a cruel branch. If she misses mass she's guilty all the week - put off suicide because convinced will burn in hell (at least a deterrent|).

The Gardener Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 4:55pm

Keep wiping. Eldest son went to funeral a few years ago of son of school friends, in his 20's, on druges for years, killed himself. Our son said he'd never forget, the agony of the parents. When I worked at Crisis at Christmas there was a girl of 18 nearly climbing the walls waiting for her 'fix'. We were near a major hospital, priest always on hand because of the number of drug deaths. Too agaonising - but should be publicised. That sight I will never forget

Samantha Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 8:53pm

As a suicide survivor I am really interested in this initiative but I had not heard of it until now, so maybe not as well advertised as it could be. The title of the programme is not an issue for me, I welcome any schemes that help prevent people planning to end their life. In my experience most people are frightened to mention suicide, the word is scary, people fear that mentioning the word will put suicide in the depressed persons head - it doesn't. Anything that makes people talk about suicide is good.
Suicide is not completely unavoidable. Another moonscope blogger talked about depression being a head attack, likened to a heart attack - sometimes you recover, sometimes you do not, I like that analogy. Given the right help and support the risks can be reduced but zero suicides is unobtainable.
Interestingly the Detroit study that is being quoted in the UK, states that the suicide rate went from 188 to 0 in 9 years, that's not the whole picture. The study was in a private hospital where they reduced the suicides by performing better assessments of patients attending with mental health complaints - very good, BUT those patients were identified as middle class who could afford private care. There were still plenty of suicides in Detroit but just not reported at that healthcare facility.
One of the UK strategies is to reduce access to means of suicide - are they having a laugh! Are they going to ban all rope sales and tall buildings? But talking about suicide is a good start, new NHS research has proven that peer support is an effective prevention aid and it seems that the UK is acknowledging that suicide is a big problem here. I am a supporter of the NHS however my experience of mental health care in the NHS was not a good one so any organisations or websites that give hope to those who feel that there is none are lifesavers.

A View from the Far Side Fri, Mar 18th 2016 @ 10:14pm

Hi Samantha, ah that was me writing about brain attacks rather than heart attacks, although I've heard that strokes are now being described as brain attacks, so maybe head attacks is a better way of differentiating. I'm glad you found it a useful analogy. AvftfS

Caron Sun, Mar 20th 2016 @ 1:55am

I just wanted to say thank you for the link to "A Letter of Hope". When I read it, I cried because I have been in so much emotional pain recently that I am struggling to cope with it and struggling to explain how I feel. I sent the email with this blog entry to some friends because it and the letter because it said some of the things I am struggling to explain to them.
I don't usually comment on the blog entries so I hope you don't mind my doing so and I hope you don't mind my forwarding your blog to my friends.

A View from the Far Side Sat, May 21st 2016 @ 10:09am

Caron, you're unlikely to see this now as it's months since you wrote it, but I am sooo glad that the Letter of Hope was useful for you. And I am sure those who wrote it will be immensely glad to. I hope that you are in a better place now.

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