By Erich Batra
What's in a name? A lot when the name of something is "doing suicides."
"How was basketball practice?" I asked my eighth-grade daughter as she walked through the door. "Great," she lamented, with a look of exhaustion, "except coach made us do four 'suicides' at the end of practice."
There is a momentary pause in my breath, my body tenses slightly, and I can see my daughter had briefly hesitated before the words left her lips. She knows that I work on preventing childhood injuries and deaths and is unsure if I will have an issue with her using the word suicide in this context.
"Suicide drills" have been a part of sports conditioning for a long time and are often used for speed and agility training. The athlete starts at one baseline, runs to a spot on the court, then returns to the baseline, and then repeats this with longer intervals. Presumably the drill got its name since it often makes one completely exhausted and causes so much pain that one would consider suicide instead of doing any more drills.
I propose that we start a cultural shift by changing the name to "baseline repeats" (or something similar), and also by recognizing that there are potential harms to the haphazard use of this and other terms that pertain to one's mental health.
Most athletes and coaches undoubtedly use the term suicide without thinking about the actual word or its meaning, that is, the taking of one's own life. There are other instances in the American vernacular where suicide is used as a surrogate for something difficult or painful. It is used in popular songs, such as Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls" ("You're way too beautiful girl, That's why it'll never work, You'll have me suicidal."). The word even comes up in culinary arts. For example, there is an infamous suicide chicken wing sauce; again, presumably so hot and spicy that one would consider taking one's own life after eating them.
It is important to understand the potential downsides of the casual use of a term that involves such a serious topic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in youths ages 14-18 for 2012, with 1,432 youths dying by suicide that year. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study found that in the 12 months before the survey, 17 percent of high school students seriously considered suicide, 13.6 percent had made a plan, and 8 percent had attempted suicide one or more times.
For those who say that most people wouldn't associate the term doing a suicide drill with the act of taking one's own life, and that to propose a change is an overreaction or "political correctness run amok," I would beg to differ.
While many students may think of it as another drill, one doesn't know which athlete might have significant depression and may be thinking of taking his or her own life. Can you imagine being a student who has recently inflicted self-harm, and then going to practice and hearing people use the term give me a suicide like its only meaning is to get into good physical condition? That person might have been considering suicide for years, the wounds could still be raw. Yet they are forced not to show any emotion.
Mental illness must be embraced in our culture as something to be compassionate about and understood, and not feared, ridiculed, or mocked. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia are often not discussed openly because people don't understand them and are afraid of them. This does not, however, give one license to make light of their seriousness.
I am not suggesting that doing "suicide drills" or ordering "suicide chicken wings" is to blame for another's suicidal actions. However, openly addressing the terms we use signifies that we are willing to work toward change and truly respect all.
My intention is not to shame coaches who use certain terms, but rather to shed light on the larger problem of using terms that some might find hurtful. Use this as an opportunity to gather the team and state why you are not going to use the term in practice anymore. Let team members know that suicide is not a term to use haphazardly and, though it has been used in the past, it doesn't have to continue being used. They should know that they shouldn't take it lightly if a fellow student speaks of suicide or depression. A trusted adult should be told immediately. Some secrets need to be shared. Students have to understand that talking about or thinking of suicide is not a healthy reaction to a stressful life event, such as a romantic breakup.
Suicide is a problem in our society. Speaking about it appropriately does not encourage suicidal behavior. Instead, if we show those around us that we take the issue seriously, and don't use the term to describe basketball drills or chicken wings, we demonstrate to all that we respect their feelings and their mental health. In that process of acceptance, perhaps we can save a life.