Suicide Talk

“Committed Suicide”: Suicide-Related Language and Word Policing

Committed suicide: A useful target for word policing?

I saw a post recently by another blogger about stigmatizing language that people should avoid. One of the things he mentioned was “committed suicide,” which is something that comes up regularly in discussions of language use related to suicide. I’m not convinced that it needs to be as big an issue as people make it out be, so I wanted to explore that.

It’s not a term I find offensive, although I know some people do, so I choose not to use it for that reason. However, because it’s a popular target for language policing, it’s been on my radar, and it catches my eye when people use “commit suicide.”

A lot of mental health bloggers (including those who’ve attempted) use the phrasing “committed suicide.”

If people within the community are regularly using the term, is “commit” a word policing battle worth fighting?

The relationship between stigma and language

Language doesn’t produce stigma, although language choices can (and often do) reflect stigma. According to the euphemism treadmill described by Steven Pinker, over time, once-neutral terms pick up the taint of public negative attitudes about whatever the term describes. The now-tainted term is replaced with a new neutral term that means essentially the same thing, but with the passage of time, it too becomes tainted. This process continues as long as the underlying negative attitudes persist.

Mental illness, suicide, bipolar, schizophrenia… all of these terms are accurate descriptors in neutral language, but there is significant stigma attached to all of them. No matter what words people use, or whether they use person-first or identity-first language, the underlying “problem” is still the same. Society is afraid of “crazy” people.

Trying to change language usage in order to reduce stigma may be approaching the issue from the wrong direction; instead, maybe we need to dig deeper into the underlying attitudes and why people are choosing certain language, and help them understand how some of those choices might be problematic.

Defining “commit”

The concern people raise about “commit suicide” is that it suggests that the person has committed a sin or a crime. When I first heard that, my reaction was, huh? It seemed like an awfully big leap, and certainly not one that had ever crossed my mind before. When I’ve spoken to others who hadn’t previously been told about this connection, the reaction was much the same.

One reason this link isn’t universally apparent is that the word commit is quite versatile, and can have positive, negative, or neutral connotations depending on how it’s used.

To get a clearer picture of this, I turned to the full Oxford English Dictionary (not the free version). The verb “commit” has five different broad meanings.

  1. To entrust, consign
  2. To do something wrong; to perpetrate.
  3. To join.
  4. To involve, embroil, and related senses.
  5. To pledge, dedicate, devote.”

The concerns about “commit suicide” fall within the second group of definitions, which includes:

  • “9.a. transitive. To carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.).
  • 9.b. transitive. To make (an error, mistake, etc.); to do (something foolish or careless).
  • 10. intransitive. To behave in a reprehensible manner; to offend, sin; esp. to commit adultery or fornication. Obsolete.
  • 11. transitivehumorous and ironic. To do (something likened by the speaker to a crime or offence).”

This is the definition for “commit suicide”:

transitive.  to commit suicide: to end one’s own life intentionally; to kill oneself. Also figurative and in extended use. Cf. [cross-reference] sense 9a. Historically, suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”

The OED gives examples of usage dating back to 1712. Interestingly, there’s a 1774 use in a newspaper referring to a political party committing suicide in a figurative sense.

How do people interpret “committed suicide”?

So, this term has been around for about 300 years, and political suicide has been talked about almost as long. The word commit has many different meanings, not all of which are negative. My guess would be that the average person who is my generation (Gen X) or younger doesn’t know that suicide used to be illegal; Joe and Jane Doofus simply aren’t that knowledgeable about history. Granted, there are still a few countries where attempting suicide is illegal, but they’ve got far bigger problems than just the choice of wording.

While the criminality link may seem obvious for advocates who have become attached to it, that doesn’t mean that the general public sees that link, or even that the link is subtly implied to people through the wording “commit suicide.” I suspect that even if you fished for it, the average person wouldn’t be able to identify why “committed suicide” is considered unacceptable. If, in the average person’s mind, “commit suicide” doesn’t have connotations that are any different from “died by suicide,” how it is useful to try to convince them that it does? Isn’t that trying to talk them into a stigmatized belief that they probably don’t have.

Common stigmatized beliefs around suicide

I previously wrote about the results of an Australian study on suicide stigma. The ten most common stigmatized views endorsed were that someone who suicides is:

  1. punishing others
  2. selfish
  3. hurtful
  4. reckless
  5. weak
  1. irresponsible
  2. attention-seeking
  3. cowardly
  4. senseless
  5. ignorant

Immoral came in at number 27, and evil was in last place at number 31 for stigmatized beliefs.

If the most common stigmatized beliefs have nothing at all to do with sin and criminality, is it useful to focus on wording that’s thought to link to sin/criminality? My biggest concern regarding suicide prevention is addressing the beliefs that suicide is selfish or that people who attempt should feel guilty about causing hurt to others. For those issues, it’s unlikely to matter whether we talk about committing suicide or dying by suicide, because the negative judgments are still there.

Other suicide word policing targets

While “committed suicide” seems to be the most common and most agreed-upon target for word policing, there are a variety of other ways of talking about suicide that some people disapprove of. Some people don’t like suicide to be used as a verb (e.g. “he suicided”). Various sources tell people not to talk about successful suicides or failed suicide attempts, as this is seen as suggesting that suicide is a good thing.

“Completed suicide”

I came across 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 against the use of the phrase “completed suicide”. Part of her justification was that completing something has positive connotations linked to accomplishment, while incomplete has negative connotations.

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.

The Speaking of Suicide article linked 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. That’s a pretty large leap. And how does it perpetuate stigma? I’m honestly not seeing the connection there.

Reactance

People don’t like being told what to do, especially when they perceive it as a threat to their freedom. This pushback is reactance, and it can happen even when the thing people are being told to do (like wear masks) is a good thing.

There’s also the issue that if people hadn’t made the suicide=criminal link before, they certainly will if you tell them about it, which probably isn’t desirable. I’m not suggesting that anyone should start embracing the term, but just because you have certain connotations attached to a term doesn’t mean that other people have those same connotations.

The way I look at it, we only have so much room to push for language change before people push back and deride it as political correctness and it all becomes a bit of a waste of time. So yes, we need effective media reporting on suicide, and we absolutely need to address the stigma around suicide. But when you start to nitpick, there’s the risk of ending up with entirely the opposite of the desired result.

We need more conversations, not fewer

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. We need to talk more about suicide, and trying to constrain people’s words may end up shutting down conversations.

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 can trigger reactance, but it can also end 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 policing.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.

55 thoughts on ““Committed Suicide”: Suicide-Related Language and Word Policing”

  1. In my home country, suicide has been decriminalized only this year, 2020! Dead bodies of those who died by suicide are handcuffed and brought to the morgue. When I attempted suicide, a cop came to the hospital and took my statement while I was out of it and full of drugs they were trying to get out of my body. Later she came back when I was more awake and told me she was doing me a favor by closing the case as accidental overdose. At that time I really didn’t care but if I did have suicide in my criminal record, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today. To me that’s what the word committed brings up.

  2. My first thought on suicide is… sad. Then I think “choice.” It’s great to be able to end one’s own suffering or get the appropriate assistance. But I get that people need to be constantly offended. I was told off for suggesting “colorblind” would be a good term for a non-racist. NOPE, colorblind MEANS racist now! If we’re not always aware of people’s skin every second of the day, we’re part of the problem 🙄🙄🙄

    1. I feel like things would work better if people focused on better contextualizing things rather than saying it’s wrong and it’s prejudiced to say [x].

    2. The idea of choice is also problematic as we’ve hitherto been unable to demonstrate that choice and free will are real things. The mechanics of the nervous system are too complicated to know for sure that even if we do something completely spontaneous, it isn’t because of something that happened to us prior. It is possible (though unlikely) that people who kill themselves are simply following a course of action that was set long before.

      1. I take a pretty non-deterministic stance in that sense, but what I would wonder in terms of choice is whether someone’s mental state at that point is clear enough to actually make a rational choice.

  3. This is sad but true, when I tried to “commit” suicide back in the early nineties after I regained somewhat consciousness a police officer told that it was a crime to do that.
    I have never forgotten that.
    I hope that never is said to another person. Maybe if I was in a proper frame of mind I might have spoken up to someone higher up in authority.

            1. Police are so poorly equipped to deal with that kind of thing. The skills that make someone good at chasing down bad guys aren’t the same skills needed to help someone in mental distress.

            2. True. It is the exact thing that America is struggling with at this moment.
              There needs to be a change on how first responders deal with those having mental distress. Thing is I am not sure how this can be resolved.
              Should do research because it would make for a great post.

  4. Suicide being the sensitive topic it is, the difference between the stigma and the language that can be used, has always been a question for me. This post helped me clear up some of my thoughts. Thank you.

    1. Yeah, it’s a lot to think about, and no right answers. But I think what will accomplish the most is having open dialogue around the issue.

  5. For me it still brings some ‘shock’ when I hear about suicide because I ‘understand’ a very little bit how hopeless the person must have felt and how many suffering proceeds that ‘choice’. In my ears I hear emphasis on ‘suicide’ and not on ‘committed’.

    I hope the underlying problems, difficulties and stigma can be brought more into the light than to ‘darken’ the discussion by arguing about the choice of words being used.
    That said we’re still free to express ourselves how we want so maybe we can start using other words and set a better ‘example’. Maybe ‘died by suicide’ sounds ‘better’.

    I know suicide was illegal a time ago in my country, I don’t know if it is still (it can also depend on the damage done, like when you jump in front of a train. The people left behind can have the bill served for that). Attending someone in suicide is punishable by law here. I don’t know what effect that has on the possibility to discuss your feelings openly. I shouldn’t have an impact but still I guess it does because people hearing you out happen to take the ‘safe’ route of talking you out of it and that – for me – finishes the open dialogue.

    Either way it is a topic that needs attention. It can shake you to your core when confronted with that when you don’t have a mental framework to process what has taken place.
    So for me any language will do.

  6. I agree. There’s a lot of stuff in the news and social media lately about language usage and what to do when commonly used terms are or become offensive. I think there’s a definite risk that policing mildly offensive terms excessively could lead inadvertently to reactant defiant usage of much more offensive terms.

  7. Honestly, I’m a bit confused. I get it when we change language so as not to stigmatize a group or perhaps stop them from getting help. I’m getting more and more pushback about the words “addict” and “addiction”. To me saying someone has “substance use disorder” is more about making the speaker and not the one suffering feel better about themselves.

    Who are we trying to make feel better about “committed suicide”? Obviously it’s not the person who did it, since its in the past tense. Are we trying to make people thinking about doing it feel better? I would actually think harsh language might dissuade them more than soft language. Are we worried about their family and friends, who will fear that the person will be remembered as one who committed a crime? They’ll be remembered for what drove them to suicide, no matter what you call it.

    I don’t know…just seems like a side conversation for people who don’t want to deal with the actual problem of suicide.

    1. I agree regarding addiction, and I think something similar comes up when it becomes “mental health issues” or “mental health problems” instead of mental illness. Sanitizing difficult topics doesn’t make the messiness and often ugliness of those experiences go away.

  8. “The concern people raise about the term “commit suicide” is that it suggests that the person has committed a sin or a crime.”

    Oh come on!! I was eagerly reading to find out just how that term could’ve been construed in a negative/stigmatising way, and this is really silly. And just as you say, the word ‘commit’ is just a very general word. It’s seeing a relation where there isn’t one at all, saying that the word ‘commit’ is negative through association with the word ‘crime’!

    And Joshua is correct— it’s a side conversation which is just procrastination. Virtue signalling, etc. Or just as simple as not understanding what the word ‘commit’ means 😆.

    Anyway the important point here is that people will make mistakes like this in their understanding or logic, which is understandable, but we need to be careful to call people out on their logic so that mistakes don’t get multiplied.

  9. Another great post Ashley, and it’s interesting to read the comments, where everyone has their own ideas about language in mental illness.

    We were taught in college to say ‘died by suicide, and it stuck. It just makes sense to me because of the negative connotations around ‘suicide.’ I wouldn’t particularly pull some stranger up for saying ‘committed suicide’, but I would mention it to people I know.

    ‘Died by suicide’ sounds different, ‘nicer’ even than ‘committed suicide.’ Just my thoughts.

    1. That’s totally fair, and I think we all have our preferences in terms of what language sounds best. But like you said, the negative connotations around suicide are still there, and it’s a matter of finding the most effective way to address that, whether that’s language change or other strategies.

  10. I definitely agree with this – the language isn’t the problem, it’s the attitudes towards people that are problematic. It’s the same with Borderline Personality Disorder – you could change the name of it, but people will still think the same things about people who have it, whatever it’s called. It’s the stigmatising views and misinformation that needs challenging, not the use of particular words. Whilst meaning well, those policing words are putting their energy into the wrong thing and could achieve so much if they focused on dispelling myths around mental illness instead. And I absolutely believe that if you tell people what to say / think and what they can’t say / think, you lose any hope of changing their minds about such topics – people resent being controlled in that way and will close their minds.

    Great post x

    1. BPD is such a great example – it’s not the name it’s the attitudes. Now if only there was one sure-fire way to effectively change those attitudes…

  11. In my opinion language is never worth making a fuss over. The things people say are often not at all indications of what is in their brain when they’re saying them. “Committed suicide” is just a catch-phrase that society has coined for a specific thing that happens. Nobody thinks about what the word commit means or even what suicide means when they say it.

    People who make allegations about others based on what they will say will always be wrong for that reason. You can’t know what the person meant; very rarely does the person who said the thing even know what they meant. So much of what we say in our lives is said without intent or forethought and we all know this is implicitly true of ourselves but we have trouble understanding that everyone else is living with this burden as well.

    A great deal of today’s political and social problems stem from people assigning their own meaning to what other people have said. I don’t put any stock in it.

    1. Yeah, assuming people’s intentions and meanings isn’t necessarily productive. It might get blurrier, though, when the problematic meaning seems to be the meaning that’s most widely recognized and utilized.

  12. I honestly had no idea that this was a phrase that raised concern. I myself never found it to be offensive, but now after reading your post I can see why people do.

    1. Yeah, if one looks at it as having that meaning, that’s definitely offensive, but it seems like the most common reaction people have when they first hear about it is that it never would have crossed their mind.

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