A popular saying reexamined

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

As a person who has spent many years writing advertising slogans and taglines, I appreciate the power and brilliance of this popular saying. It’s short. It’s memorable. And the word play between opposites—permanent and temporary—is irresistible.

Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.

When I began researching this saying as a potential subject for this blog, I was favorably predisposed. Not only was the maxim clever, but it also provided a quick sound bite for categorizing a devastating event that I can’t begin to understand. But after reading several persuasive articles and blogs, I’ve done a 360.

Why?

I’m not the audience. The audience is the person who is seriously considering suicide. Franklin Cook, who has worked in suicide prevention and grief support for more than 15 years, says that implying that your pain is temporary “might minimize or negate the importance or validity of the person’s feelings, sending the message that he or she is wrong about the nature or value of the pain.”

It’s judgmental. While there are people whose thoughts of suicide are triggered by a single critical event such as a breakup, divorce, financial issues or a bad grade, most of the time it’s been building for a while. “Saying that the problem is temporary is judgmental and dismissive of the fact that the problem often isn’t temporary,” says Hollis Easter, who runs a telephone crisis hotline. Depression can persist for a long and indefinite period of time. Many people feel suicidal for years and the “temporary” reference belittles the battle they fight daily.

It’s not effective. The risk of using language like “permanent solution” is that for a person struggling with suicidal thoughts, that concept can actually be enticing and exactly what they’re looking for. According to Easter, “you don’t get to know in advance whether the person wants a permanent solution.”

In suicide prevention, words matter. We need to step outside our own experience and predilections and into the shoes of the person in pain and consider the possible consequences of the language we choose.

Written by Board Member Christopher Grover

Posted on August 19, 2016 .