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Say the Word, a Psychology of Power

Say the word. Suicide. Say it aloud. Say it more than once. Say it until it sounds like any other word. 

Our minds give words power, connotations, and destructive or healing qualities. Words, alone, can attack the body with symptoms of fear and uncertainty and, at the same time, be inexact and open to interpretation. What if you could rob a word like “suicide” of some of its isolating effect and control? 

Words are serious business. What they represent – true or not – are real problems that need real solutions. Taking control of the power of words is one strategy that places the focus where it should be, on solving problems, on finding help instead of bolstering negative emotions and feeding into colloquial hype.

Words also have the power to heal. I hear you. I love you. I understand. How do these short sentences make you feel? Try other words. Cancer. Heart attack. Kidney failure. Mental illness. Stroke. Addiction. Remission. Relapse. Depression. Cure. Alcoholism. Disease. Bipolar. Diagnosis. Do all of these words make you feel the same way? Why or why not?

Sometimes, the power of a word, along with what has actually happened, robs us of speech entirely. There are no words. That is usually a temporary condition, but it is one that is indicative of how much authority words can have over us. When we are driven to seek out a word, to learn about it, to say it and find or give support, the power can shift until we can think and decide what it means to us. At that point, we are in control. The power is in our hands.

When that happens, we can speak our own truth without feeling intimidated. We can read the words above and recognize that they seem quite different without any associated stigma and shame. We can see the similarities, authentic meanings, which opens the pathway for choosing the best way to deal with whatever issues they represent. The issues are difficult enough; let words be just words.

How does a simple action like saying a word rob it of its power? First, repetition reduces or removes the shock value. One of the reasons words “shock” us is because they are unfamiliar or at least unfamiliar in a particular context. In the example word “suicide,” we may understand what the word means but be shocked to hear it associated with a family member or friend. The actions words like this represent are often those that have not occurred regularly enough in our lives for us to have built a relationship with the proffered ideas. We have only hearsay to rely on. Suicide, however, is at record highs. It is becoming almost commonplace, unfortunately, so it is important for us to try and understand what it means.

Secondly, shock robs us of the power to respond in healthy ways, to offer help, and to do what we need to do in a given situation. With shock out of the way, channels open to appropriate levels of action, whether they be reacting to someone in suicidal crisis, to continue with our example word, or reaching out to a community to support both prevention and aftercare programs. 

We can do our own research, consult experts in the field of mental and behavioral health and addiction (which often accompanies suicidal impulses and inhibits the brain from accessing rational thought). We can educate ourselves enough to examine facts instead of relying on outdated cultural myths and allusions. 

We can understand that medical science makes progress over the decades and that professional advice and medication recommendations change over time. All of this allows us to make informed decisions about how we react, what we can do, and how we speak about an issue.

How can we reach out? 

  • Participate in community education programs.
  • Join online groups dedicated to advancing knowledge and stamping out stigma. 
  • Work with churches, schools, and organizations to educate others and build support. 
  • Take care of our own health: physical, mental and spiritual. 
  • Talk to our children to let them know they can tell us anything and we will listen. 
  • Call out comments that propagate misinformation and cruel remarks or jests that make light of a topic or those who are struggling.

If you are mindful of problems in your own life and in the lives of people you love, your language will show it. Despite the current trend to say out loud whatever thought crosses your cranium, remind yourself that part of the human brain is older and less evolved. It wants what it wants with no filter. But the frontal lobes and nearby parts like the Broca’s area — which allows thoughts to be transformed into words — make up the highly developed cerebrum. Sitting at the top of the brain, the cerebrum enables intellectual activities. That explains a lot about our behavior, doesn’t it? And how illness or injury can affect how we act.

Knowledge, kindness and compassion will make a huge difference in your own life and in the lives of others. We may not understand fully the complexity of the human brain, but taking control to the extent that we can means the choice is ours to make.

Say the Word, a Psychology of Power

Jan McDaniel

Jan McDaniel is a writer from the Southeastern United States. A former newspaper reporter and college English instructor, she writes a blog column ("This New Life") for the Alliance of Hope for suicide loss survivors and serves as an AOH forum moderator and Steward Group Leader. On her website, she writes about her journey through traumatic grief after the suicide of her husband of over thirty years and how she found survival, connection and hope:

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APA Reference
McDaniel, J. (2019). Say the Word, a Psychology of Power. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Nov 2019 (Originally: 15 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 13 Nov 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.