The words ‘committed suicide’ are pervasive in discussions about suicide, both in the media and personal conversations. Recently, social justice advocates have called for a significant change in language, stating that the words ‘died by suicide’ should be used instead of ‘committed suicide.’ Is this a justified attempt to change our attitudes towards suicide, or merely a case of excessive political correctness?
The case for ‘died by suicide’
Think about the situations where we use the word ‘commit.’ We can commit a theft, robbery, murder, assault, felony… or a suicide. The word ‘committed’ does not just mean that someone performed an action, but is connected with crime. The word ‘suicide’ seems out of place on that list, but not so long ago, suicide was a criminal offence. Society has come a long way since then, and we now treat suicide as a health issue rather than a legal one.
Due to the link with crime, the word ‘commit’ carries implicit associations with guilt, shame and embarrassment. These associations are appropriate when we are talking about crimes, but this is no longer appropriate with suicide. Since the crime of suicide was abolished, we have gained a better understanding of why people die by suicide. However, the language we use to discuss suicide often does not reflect this transformation. If we truly aim to recognise suicide as a health issue, it is important that our language reflects this updated outlook.
The connection between the word ‘commit’ and shame can negatively impact on the likelihood that a person will speak to someone if they are experiencing thoughts about suicide. If we don’t talk about thoughts about committing a crime, why should we expect people to talk to someone it they are thinking about committing suicide? Changing our language can take the shameful sting out of discussions about suicide, and can allow us to recognise that someone who is depressed or suicidal is suffering from a health condition, rather than a character flaw or weakness.
Is there a case for saying ‘committed suicide’?
The upside to using the words ‘died by suicide’ is the reduction of stigma surrounding suicide and mental health. But is stigma necessary? Some researchers have suggested that destigmatising suicide makes it seem like an optional way to die, rather than a forbidden, shameful act.
One of the key examples of this is the association found between celebrity suicide deaths and increased suicide rates. A possible explanation for this association is that these reports make suicide seem like an appealing option which is inevitable in some circumstances. However, stories about celebrity suicides may also encourage people to engage in important discussions about suicide.
Understanding that mental illness can affect celebrities can assist in de-stigmatising suicide, and demonstrate that mental illness can affect anyone. Mallon has suggested that celebrity imitated suicides can be prevented with careful reporting. Such careful reporting would contextualise suicide without reporting a celebrity’s circumstances in a way which changes an unthinkable act into a viable option. Importantly, this recommendation drills down to how we discuss suicide, rather than suggesting that we avoid such discussions and media publications altogether.
Destigmatising the cause of suicide – mental illness
While using the words ‘committed suicide’ stigmatise suicide as an unthinkable act, it is important to remember that not all members of the community are at risk of dying by suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people seriously affected by mental illness. In contrast to crime, suicide is not the result of personal weakness, character flaws or difficult circumstances.
Despite recent attempts to raise awareness for mental health, being labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis still carries shame, stigma and dangerous stereotypes. A 2006 Australian study found that almost 1 in 4 people thought depression was a sign of personal weakness, and would not employ a person with depression. Even more harrowing, 1 in 5 people reported that if they had depression, they would not tell anyone. In light of these statistics, how can we expect people to speak up if they are suffering from a mental illness? On the face of it, stigmatising suicide as a horrible outcome seems appropriate, but we must recognise that suicidal thoughts are a symptom of a serious psychiatric condition. Connecting suicide with the same shame, guilt, embarrassment and disgrace of a crime decreases the chances that people experiencing suicidal thoughts will seek the assistance of mental health services.
Discussions about suicide are fraught with difficulty. On balance, the words ‘died by suicide’ do not transform suicide into a viable option, but reflect that suicide is a health issue rather than a criminal act. This is not a case excessive political correctness, but a call for us to reconsider the language we use to discuss a serious issue in our society. We need to use language which takes the shameful sting out of discussions about mental illness and suicide, and encourages people to speak up and seek assistance when they are experiencing difficulties. We may not be able to change our language overnight, but if we make an effort to say ‘died by suicide’ rather than ‘committed suicide,’ at least we are making a start on the destigmatisation of mental health.
This article was first published in On Line Opinion.