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. Last year, I wrote How Picky Should We Be About Suicide-Related Language? after reading an article by someone who wanted to put the kibosh on all kinds of terms related to suicide, including completed suicide. Since then, it’s something that’s been on my radar, so it catches my eye when people use “commit suicide.”
And you know what? A lot of mental health bloggers use the phrasing “committed suicide.”
If people within the community are regularly using the term, is “commit” a 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 in deeper to the underlying attitudes and why people are choosing certain language, and help them understand how some of those choices might be problematic.
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 on this, I turned to the full Oxford English Dictionary (not the free version). The verb “commit” has five different broad meanings.
- To entrust, consign
- To do something wrong; to perpetrate.
- To join.
- To involve, embroil, and related senses.
- 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. transitive. humorous and ironic. To do (something likened by the speaker to a crime or offence).”
Committing suicide is defined this way:
“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.”
Examples of usage are given 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 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 results of an Australian study on suicide stigma. The ten most common stigmatized views endorsed were that someone who suicides are:
- punishing others
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 preventionis 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.
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 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.
So what should we do?
If people find certain language offensive, they should absolutely feel free not to use that language. But in terms of creating change in public attitudes, focusing on what we as advocates might prefer may end up missing the boat on what actually sways public attitudes. And if we start targeting people with mental illness in word policing efforts, telling them how to talk about their thoughts and experiences with suicidality, that really misses the boat in terms of reaching the appropriate target audience for stigma reduction.
Perhaps there are better place to focus, like promoting media reporting guidelines that can reduce the risk of serious problems like suicide contagion. And even more importantly, we can tell our stories, so people can get some understanding of what suicidality actually is. Because we need more talk about suicide, not less.
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.