Language matters when it comes to talking about suicide, particularly when it’s mentioned in the media. Sometimes, though, I wonder if getting too nitpicky about suicide-related language is counterproductive. After all, as stigma researcher Patrick Corrigan says, stigma gets attached to labels; it’s not a product of those labels.
I recently saw a tweet linking to a post on Speaking of Suicide that talked about suicide-related language. Specifically, it addressed the phrases committed suicide, completed suicide, and died by suicide. The author argued that the phrase “completed suicide” shouldn’t be used. Part of her justification was that completing something has positive connotations linked to accomplishment, while incomplete has negative connotations.
The author links to the Maine Suicide Prevention Program site, which states that the phrase completed suicide perpetuates stigma and implies that the person has made a previous attempt, whether or not they actually have. To be honest, I’m just not seeing it.
I understand why a term like “commit suicide” is objectionable. Personally, it doesn’t bother me all that much despite its problematic origins. I guess I think of it as kind of like the term “bandaid”. It’s used so widely that the original nature of the term fades into the background, and the meaning moves beyond the literal meaning of the words involved. I don’t imagine many people these days are making the link between committing suicide and committing a crime, aside from those countries where, sadly, it does continue to be against the law. Like I said, though, I can understand why, for many, that wording is considered unacceptable. Therefore, it’s not a phrase I use myself.
The Speaking of Suicide article caught my attention in large part because I do use the term “completed suicide”. If the author believes that the word “completed” has inappropriately positive connotations, it seems to me like that’s her concern, not mine. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, synonyms of completed include: concluded, done, ended, finished, over, and terminated. Sounds about right to me. As for the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s argument that it implies a previous attempt, that’s a pretty large leap. And how does it perpetuate stigma? I’m honestly not seeing the connection there.
We’re all going to have our own personal language preferences, and it seems unlikely that everyone will come to an agreement on what words to use when it comes to suicide. That’s okay, though. We don’t all have to talk about it the same way. What matters is that we speak up.
Whether we talk about someone completing suicide, dying by suicide, or whatever you want to call it, the stigma is still there. To actually chip away at the stigma we need to get busy talking openly about suicide. Nitpicking over suicide-related language just ends up distracting from the real problem. It doesn’t change the fact that people are going into emergency rooms feeling suicidal and getting turned away because sorry, they’re just not suicidal enough. So let’s focus our attention where it belongs and ease up a little on the language police.
You may also be interested in the more recent posts Is “Committed Suicide” Worth Making an Issue Out Of? and The Problem with Language Policing.
The suicide & mental illness resource page has info on suicidal thinking, crisis lines and safety planning, along with straight talk on suicide.
You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.