Safe Language is not
About being politically correct
Policing how others share their personal story
Holding back details out of shame
Safe Language is
Being intentional about how you share our story
Understanding the impact of your words
Avoiding graphic details
Avoid causing unintentional harm.
It’s up to each one of us to be present, in tune, and aware of how our words impact our delivery and those around us.
Done correctly, sharing your story will deepen your own sense of healing and inspire others.
When you share your story, there is a strong likelihood that you'll be perceived as an authority on the matter, regardless of whether you're on stage or chatting with a friend at a coffee shop.
The content of your story and how you deliver it can elicit an strong emotional response. Safe messaging reduces the risk of causing unnecessary trauma.
Safe language and messaging is important for your audience because you will rarely know the following about each of your audience members:
history of traumatic experiences
current state of mental and emotional wellbeing
current support systems in place
Effective speakers prioritize the safety of their audience.
Guidelines to help you create a safe space for effective conversations about mental health and suicide.
Safe Language that eliminates stigma:
"No one chooses to feel this way."
"I’m sorry you’re hurting."
"Is there anything I can do to support you?"
"I'm here for you."
"They're having a difficult time and could use support."
"They're struggling to manage everything."
"They're having a difficult time processing this situation."
"They could use a friend to help him through this."
"People who attempt suicide are hurting."
"They were in so much pain."
"They hated the idea of being a burden on anyone."
"Their pain must have become unbearable."
"They must have felt so alone."
"They lost their ability to believe that it could ever get better."
"We lost two more people to suicide."
"They died from suicide."
"Their death was due to mental illness."
"They lost their battle with depression."
"I lost them to suicide."
Language that perpetuates stigma:
"What do you have to be depressed over? You have it all."
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"Don’t do anything stupid."
"You’re being overly dramatic."
"They're a ticking time bomb."
"They're acting crazy."
"They're choosing to feel this way."
"They just need to get over it."
"People who attempt suicide are attention seekers."
"They were a coward."
"They took the easy way out."
"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation."
"We had two more suicides?"
"They committed suicide."
"They chose a cruel way to blame others."
"They chose to die."
"They killed themselves."
"They took their own life."
"They were selfish."
You can eliminate stigma
If done correctly, sharing your story will deepen your own sense of healing while helping others.
It is common for individuals to share their story before they feel they’ve fully healed. However, to be truly effective in helping others, you first need to have the desire to heal and/or the desire to find something good in what was otherwise a tragic situation.
It is also important to understand that healing takes more than just time. It requires energy and a willingness to move through the pain. The more you work on your own healing, the greater the impact you’ll have on your audience.
Don’t just tell your story – give your audience a reason to believe that healing is possible.
While many people tend to spend more time focused on the tragedy and the pain they’ve experienced, be mindful of what would be most beneficial to your audience. Sharing details about the pain you’ve experienced can help your audience better understand the journey you’ve been on and how much you’ve grown for having gone through it. However, if your goal is to promote healing, it’s important that you emphasize the lessons you’ve learned and how you’ve managed to move forward in a healthy way.
It is important that your story conveys a clear yet basic explanation of the trauma you experienced without going into graphic detail. Rather than sharing the graphic details of an experience, a more impactful approach is to share the emotions you felt as you went through it. Help your listeners connect with you by sharing how this event and/or the person you lost impacted you on a raw, deep, and vulnerable level.
Keep in mind that when you’re being vulnerable, you’re asking your audience to do the same. When you look out at your audience and see heads nodding, eyes locked on you, and maybe even tears, know that each one of those individuals has connected with you and trusts you. Honor that trust by telling your story in a safe and respectful manner.
The human mind does not know the difference between experiencing an event in real time versus experiencing it through graphic detail.
Sharing your story in graphic detail can trigger a physical, mental and emotional response not only for you, but also for your audience. In essence you are reliving your experience in front of others and putting yourself and your audience at risk of feeling traumatized by the event.
Before using graphic details, remember to ask yourself why you are using them and if they are necessary. If you believe they are, and you believe you are healthy to share, consider the following circumstances.
As a public speaker, graphic details are discouraged due to the risk of not knowing how those details could impact an audience member. If you choose to use graphic details, give a clear advance warning and allow those who wish to leave the audience to do so. Also, be sure you have easily identifiable staff members available for those who need support.
Graphic details may be used in small groups or private conversations after asking if each person feels comfortable with you sharing the details.
Provide a disclaimer if any written or recorded productions include graphic details. Here are two examples
Please note that the following section contains graphic details. If you do not wish to read this section, please skip to page #.
Please note that the following section is not graphic in nature, but does contain emotionally charged content.
Regardless of what your personal story is about, there is a strong likelihood that someone in your audience has been impacted by mental health challenges and/or suicide. If your goal is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your audience, then you need to have an awareness for how your words and take every opportunity to provide a safe and supportive space.
Stigma causes people to feel embarrassed or ashamed to be open about their experiences. It also stops people from asking for help and adds to the pain they feel when experiencing mental health challenges or have lost a loved one to suicide.
First, address the real stigma. Shame is not a stigma, but the result of stigma. The stigma is that mental illness and suicide are often seen by others as a choice, a weakness, or a selfish act. Or that the person is broken or that they are simply a bad person.
Second, recognize how stigma is impacting how other respond. There is often a sense of blame and judgment involved when a person faces mental health challenges, attempts, or dies from suicide. Because they are perceived as broken or bad, the people around them, including family, friends, and even providers, are often focused on trying to fix them or fix their behavior.
Third, change the way you speak and respond. Rather than using language that judges, shame, or tries to fix someone, make every effort to understand what they’re going through and acknowledge it while showing them love and support.
An exercise in self-reflection
Questions to ask yourself...