How picky should we be about suicide-related language?

dictionary excerpt

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 language is counterproductive.  After all, as stigma researcher Patrick Corrigan says, stigma gets attached to labels but is not a product of those labels.

On Twitter I recently came across a link to a post on the Speaking of Suicide site that talked about language around suicide, including the phrases committed suicide, completed suicide, and died by suicide.  The author argued that the phrase “completed suicide” should not be used, and 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.

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 a crime.  Like I said, though, I can understand why for many that wording is considered unacceptable, so 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 word completed has positive connotations in the author’s mind, 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 seems like a fairly large leap to make.  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 language just turns into a distraction 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.


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27 thoughts on “How picky should we be about suicide-related language?

  1. Meg says:

    Take nothing I say too seriously–I’m sleep-deprived, menstrual, and totally conked. But I have to ask, what are the objections to “commited suicide”? You mentioned that you understand why some people have a problem with the term, but I’m drawing a blank. [Ponders it.] Huh. Still nothing.

    I can kind of see the issue with “completed suicide.” It has a funny connotation, sort of like, “He successfully leapt off the building and, with our congratulations and applause, completed his suicide.”

    There’s always the old standby: “He killed himself.” I think that one works.

    Oh, wait, I see what you’re saying. We shouldn’t focus on the linguistics because it’s not the bigger picture. (See what I mean about how conked out I am? So not kidding!) [Scratches my head.]

      • Meg says:

        Ohhhhhhh. Yeah, buh-doink. I might have figured that out if I were halfway conscious! 😀 Okay, yeah, that sounds bad. Because no one ever commits anything good, do they?

        One euphemism I’ve heard that I sort of (almost) like is, “He died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.” But that one’s so blase that it gives the impression suicide is something to be ashamed of and therefore must be talked around. I definitely don’t like the idea that anyone should feel ashamed of having attempted suicide. Life is a complicated and messy ordeal, and the important thing is always to carry on and keep trying!

  2. trigtastic says:

    This is huge in the alternative sector–language, that is. I tend to agree with you that speaking up is what’s important, and not so much the words. And at the same time, when I hear people use mental health terminology like it’s derogatory I just want to go on a tangent that invalidates their attitude. That, however, would be against the philosophy of my numerous trainings.

    For example, for us, where I work at least, we tend to avoid the usage of diagnosis and focus solely on people’s experiences. So we don’t keep record of diagnosis, and i often don’t know people’s diagnoses unless they feel the need to blurt it to me. I find most people don’t. In the almost three years I’ve worked as a counselor in this sector I’ve been asked my diagnosis maybe a total of two times by people who were sharing theirs with me. And even then instinctively I concluded with: “I don’t identify by those labels, though, I find them more constricting than helpful, like I’m supposed to fit in some sick, broken little box.” And that usually opens up the conversation for an analysis of labels and the effect it has on us.

    My point is that terms like committed suicide–ugh. I very rarely use those terms, and very rarely hear it at work. Mostly we talk about it in terms of wanting to end their life, not be here anymore, not exist, and the deeper level there, the wanting to disappear, rather than focusing on the physicality of “suicide”. I’d rather hear why they want to disappear, why existence is so painful for them than why they want to “commit suicide”. Because there is a difference. If you ask someone “why do you want to commit suicide?” Their answer is often blunt, short, and bittersweet: “I just can’t take this pain anymore.” If you ask them “Why is existence so painful for you right now?” The answer becomes different. It opens up the discussion for family life, emotional, physical, mental pain, school, work, past traumas, just so many aspects of life. I think the professional world would do good to kind of tweak their vision on this a bit.

    That’s my rant. Apologies lol.

  3. Melanie B Cee says:

    It occurred to me, as I was reading this excellent post, that “completed suicide” IS valid, because so many attempt it and fail. Completed suicide could be interpreted as a fully successful suicide. Whatever the wording though, you are correct, more open talking about it and less nit-picking seems the best way to help those who suffer from that kind of thinking. I know, just recently I’ve BEEN there, and honestly didn’t feel encouraged to go to the ER, not because I might not be ‘suicidal enough’, but because I just didn’t want to deal with explaining WHY any more. And someone wrote on one of the posts I wrote after Huny passed away, that ‘it’s the quiet ones we need to worry about’ (I’ve taken that out of context, but that was the gist). We need to worry about ANYONE who is thinking of suicide. Using common sense of course. I was almost remanded to a psych ward after I told a very green doctor (she was brand new at her job) that I had ‘suicidal ideations’. I think about dying every single day, I just don’t act on those thoughts. Thank God the counselor who would have been the one to say I was remanded or not, understood depression. Yeah, I want to die. I really do. But it’s rare that I’ll act on those thoughts. Still it would be nice to know someone understood and could help.

  4. marandarussell says:

    Never really thought about this. I personally don’t find issue with the language mentioned here. The thing that gets to me is the whole “suicide is cowardly” thing. That annoys me.

    • Heather Tasker says:

      It’s completely misguided. Anyone who has crossed from ideation to attempt knows cognitive distortions are so strong then that normal reasoning (“this will pass”, “my sister would be heartbroken”) disappears and is replaced with very strong beliefs like “this will never end” and “they’re better off without me”.

      It’s important to have an action plan for times like these because they are incredibly dangerous but usually pass with proper support and treatment.

      No one deserves to be shamed or blamed for mental illness.

  5. Heather Tasker says:

    I’ve never heard of this as an issue but can understand why some people are cautious about words. I think “suicide attempt” and “failed suicide attempt” are far more dangerous and challenging phrases which could make a person shameful about their lack of success and even promote another attempt.

  6. lavenderandlevity says:

    I have a post that I keep trying to figure out whether to post about person-first vs. identity-first language in neurodiversity. It can be a super contentious and personal choice for how to describe any type of neurodiversity. I want respect that for those for whom it is a major signifier, but even though I’m genuinely passionate about ADHD advocacy and ADHD being fully accepted *as* a true type of neurodiversity, I’m not really that attrached to the language either way. I was asked for the first time a few months ago how I personally prefer to have ADHD described if it ever comes up by a friend. That was kind of cool, but I didn’t really have an answer. I know I’ve used both “have ADHD” and “am ADHD” on my blog. I’m not really particular, though I think I use the “am ADHD” language more frequently in safe spaces and in my own head. But, the basic point for me is that if ADHD is no big deal, than I won’t blink at either language usage. But, if I detect a hint of stigma around what the speaker perceives ADHD to *be*, then even the most supposedly sensitive language in the world won’t change that. The legacy of having seen words that should even be benign on their own twisted into verbal attacks is that I will always care more about the implicit context of language than the words themselves. I guess that applies here, too. I probably am ADHD enough not to necessarily notice what word was used, but I have enough of a trauma and mental illness history that I will laser-focus onto any hint in an article that suicide – or any other mental illness, mental health challenge or whatever the most widely accepted current way of speaking of it is – is anything to speak of with shame or stigma.

  7. darie73 says:

    There are way too many guidelines in the Mental Health Community to keep up with all of them. I’m glad someone else is writing about it. Not long ago I was chastised for telling someone that “I’m Biplolar”, supposedly I’m to say that I am “diagnosed as Bipolar”. Personally I feel that if I’m the one living with it I should be able to phrase it the way I want. I’ve also attempted suicide several times when I was much younger. I always felt like a failure when doctors talked about my “failed” attempts. I think (hope) this has changed. What hasn’t changed is the pain we feel and the need for affordable resources.

  8. Crazy in OK says:

    Although I understand the objections to certain terms and lost my husband to suicide, I don’t have a problem with any of the terms. I relate most to your words about how words or terms lose their mea

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