Suicide communication events: Lay interpretation of the communication of suicidal ideation and intent

Gareth Owen*, Judith Belam, Helen Lambert, Jenny Donovan, Frances Rapport, Christabel Owens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


Previous research has shown that a majority of people communicate their suicidal ideas and intent prior to the act of suicide, but very little is known about the way in which these suicide communication events are interpreted by relatives, friends and significant others. A suicide communication event (SCE) is defined as a set of circumstances in which a person expresses suicidal feelings, thoughts, intentions or plans, either directly or indirectly, in interaction with other people in their social environment. In a qualitative study conducted in 2008-9 we collected narratives from people bereaved by suicide. Here we examine these narratives using an analytic framework derived from communication pragmatics and face-work theory. We analysed 14 cases of completed suicide drawn from coroner's case files in London, Southwest England and South Wales. We found that the SCEs described were potentially face-threatening situations requiring face-saving strategies, which often resulted in off-record, indirect, ambiguous, humorous and euphemistic communications. Listeners frequently found it difficult to judge the meaning and intention of utterances referring to suicide. The outcome was often misunderstanding and closure of the communication, limiting the possibility of further support and referral for professional help. SCEs are important elements of the suicide process and we conclude that better understanding of how they occur and the challenges they pose for significant others may provide a basis for strengthening public involvement in suicide prevention. We draw our findings together in a model that could inform public awareness campaigns designed to improve the way people communicate with each other about suicide and distress.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)419-428
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes


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