Suicide

Is “Committed Suicide” Worth Making an Issue Out Of?

Language and mental illness: Committed suicide

I saw a post recently by another blogger about stigmatizing language to 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.

Personally, it’s not a term I find offensive, although I know some people do, and I choose not to use it for that reason. Over a year ago, I wrote the post 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. Since then, it’s something that’s been on my radar, so I notice when people use “commit suicide.”

And you know what? A lot of mental health bloggers say “committed suicide.”

Given that there are lots of really problematic terms, statements, and questions that people are coming out with when it comes to mental illness, is “commit” a battle that’s worth fighting? Note that the points I make here are about general usage; media reporting guidelines provide recommendations for press reporting to reduce the risk of things like suicide contagion.

The relationship between stigma and language

Language doesn’t produce stigma, although language choices can (and often do) reflect stigma. No matter what language people use about mental illness or suicide in particular, the underlying stigma is still there.

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, the underlying “problem” is still the same.

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

The definition of commit

The concern people raise about the term “commit suicide” is that it suggests that the person has committed a sin or a crime. I can’t remember when I first heard these concerns raised, but my personal opinion is that it’s imputing a meaning that in the vast majority of usages simply isn’t there.

Commit is a very versatile word, with positive, negative, and neutral connotations. To get a clearer picture on this, I turned to the full Oxford English Dictionary (not the free version you find online).

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).

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 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 that’s a far bigger issue than simply the wording that’s used.

I would also guess that if you found 100 people who weren’t familiar with the subject at all, and you asked them what they meant when they used the term “committed suicide”, few if any of them would mention anything about suicide being a crime, even if you fished for it.

Another guess, and I realize that this is a lot of guessing, is that if you had told that same group of 100 people that “commit suicide” was offensive and asked them why they thought that might be, not many would come up with a link to committing a crime. I think those same people would be more likely to be able to identify what’s problematic about using “succeeded” and “failed” in relation to suicide.

For these scenarios, I’m considering people from countries where it’s been decades since suicide was last considered a crime. In countries where suicide remains a crime, or where it was only very recently decriminalized, there are far bigger issues around stigma to be dealt with than simply the words β€œcommit suicide”.

Common stigmatized beliefs around suicide

I did a post a while back on Stigma and How the Public Views Suicide, which looked at research results using the Stigma of Suicide Scale. The ten most common stigmatized views endorsed were that someone who suicides are:

  1. punishing others
  2. selfish
  3. hurtful
  4. reckless
  5. weak
  6. irresponsible
  7. attention-seeking
  8. cowardly
  9. senseless
  10. 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 are not about sin and criminality, is it useful to focus on a language connection that doesn’t relate to the major stigmatized attitudes? For me, the biggest concern is the idea that suicide is selfish, along with people who attempt should feel guilty about causing hurt to others. All of that’s still present whether we talk about committing suicide or dying by suicide.

Psychological 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 more on this in the great book The Stigma Effect by Patrick Corrigan.

The way I look at it, we only have so much room to push for language change before people push back and it all becomes a bit of a waste of time. So yes, we need effective media reporting on suicide. Yes, we need to address derogatory language that’s dripping in stigma. Yes, we 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 effect.

For me, that’s why I choose not to make an issue out of “committed suicide.” I know others will disagree, but I think regardless of preferences, what matters is what’s effective for those who receive the message, not just what feels most compelling to those of us who send it.

Stop mental illness stigma

You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.

58 thoughts on “Is “Committed Suicide” Worth Making an Issue Out Of?”

  1. Brilliant blog post, and very well researched!!

    I knew suicide was illegal, but I thought it still was! (Except that no one ever presses charges for it… hmm… doesn’t pressing charges get decided by the victim? Interesting scenario, there… “Mrs. Jones, would you like to press charges against YOURSELF for trying to kill you?” Total weirdness. And Mrs. Jones would be like, “No, after a lot of soul searching, I’ve decided to forgive myself for attempting to murder me. I’m happy to move on.”)

    But I digress. Anyway, yeah, “committed” has that connotation of, like, committing a crime. But I agree that it’s not offensive (although I certainly don’t judge anyone who finds it offensive… I think it comes down to how a certain person perceives the expression). To me, I don’t “hear” the implication of criminal act when I hear “committed suicide,” I just hear the term, but I can see how it would sound bad.

    I do truly hate the stigma list you wrote out. Especially the “attention seeking” one, as though that’s bad and we should never seek attention. To get technical, you sought attention by writing this blog post, and I’m seeking attention by replying to it, and I sought more attention earlier today by answering some email correspondence, and I’ll seek more later if I post on social media, or if I talk to my dad about the household chores. We’re so sinful for seeking all this attention, aren’t we? UGH. SOMETIMES PEOPLE NEED ATTENTION!! GIVE THEM SOME! I have yelled.

    And cowardly? People don’t understand that being suicidal is terrifying. You become terrified of yourself, as well as terrified that life will never be worth living again. It’s not cowardly. Quite the opposite. It’s cowardly people who can’t imagine what it would be like to be suicidal, because they’ve never stared death in the face.

    And as for punishing others, often it’s a sense of futility, like that person is hurting me so badly (by being an abusive parent, or an abusive spouse, etc.) that I can’t get through to them any other way than by attempting suicide. Sort of like my story of being in the mental hospital when my mom called me, you know? If you’re attempting suicide to punish others, then those others need a wakeup call about how they’re treating you. Period, end of story. Saying, “Oh, how dare you be so passive-aggressive as to attempt suicide to get their attention,” is cruel, because the person attempting suicide has tried every which way to communicate with the hurtful person/people in question. And they got nowhere, and the quality of their life just got worse.

    Great blog post!!

  2. 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.

  3. My first thought on suicide is… sad. Then I think β€œchoice.” 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 β€œcolorblind” 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 πŸ™„πŸ™„πŸ™„

    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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. “The concern people raise about the term β€œcommit 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 correctβ€” it’s a side conversation which is just procrastination. Virtue signalling, etc. Or just as simple as not understanding what the word ‘commit’ means πŸ˜†.

    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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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…

  12. 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.

  13. 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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