Change the Definition of Suicide

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Every day is a tough day to cope with losing a loved one by suicide. The holidays only bring up more memories and, often, more pain and grief.

As a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of suicide and mental illness and that provides support for those affected, i understand calls on the American Association of Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to change the definition of suicide on their websites and in their literature, or to add this new definition on their information pages about suicide.
Rather than including the outdated, stigmatizing definition about intentionally taking one’s own life, we believe wording should focus on suicide’s tie to severe pain and mental illness. The definition should be changed to, “a terminal side effect of mental illness; the result of wanting one’s physical or emotional pain to end.”

Suicide is often a terminal effect of a mental illness. Alternatively, one does not need to have been formally diagnosed with a psychological disorder to experience pain. One may feel pain, despair, and hopelessness after experiences of heartbreak, bullying, financial loss, or even a broken leg that caused physical pain and/or difficult changes in lifestyle. Any difficult circumstance can cause pain, and sometimes it feels too difficult for one to live with. Thus, it is time to change the definition so that all of these circumstances can be discussed openly and honestly, providing relief and hope for those struggling.
Vonnie, the founder of i understand, lost her husband to suicide, and many of our supporters are survivors, as well. We believe that a change in the definition will change the way we all speak.
For example, if you ask how Vonnie’s husband died and she answers, “He killed himself,” how does that make you feel?
If she answers, “He died from depression,” how do you feel?
Likely, the two answers will lead to very different conversations, the second resulting in a discussion about the suffering he was experiencing.
We believe it’s important to talk about WHY someone died rather than HOW someone died by suicide. And those reasons revolve around a struggle so deep that the person sees no other way to manage. We need to focus on the mental illness or pain leading to the death – the causes and symptoms – rather than the act itself. This will increase understanding and reduce the stigma attached to suicide and, in turn, will save lives. A simple change in language can impact those struggling with their physical or mental health, their loved ones, and survivors of suicide loss.
We call on AFSP and NAMI to be the first to make a public move affirming this definition by including it in their literature and websites. We believe this should be a movement across the world in mental health organizations, schools, families, dictionaries, psychological organizations, and social circles. Change the conversation with those around you – you never know whose life you could be impacting.

AFSP and NAMI - it's time to take action. 

i understand is a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, promoting awareness of suicide and mental illness and providing support for those affected. We hold support groups for those who have lost a loved one to suicide and we host free monthly community events. We have partnered with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where we have funded a Clinical Nurse Specialist who educates about mental health in the traditional hospital setting – the first position of its kind in the country. Our nurse works with staff on using proper language around mental illness and on finding appropriate treatment for patients. Additionally, we provide care packages for those affected by a mental health crisis at the hospital. Visit our website at or find us on Facebook by searching i understand or #iunderstandloveheals

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