I saw a post recently by Nathan of My Brain’s Not Broken 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.
- “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 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 “commit 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:
- 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 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.
People don’t like being told what to do, especially when they perceive it as a threat to their freedom. This pushback is reactance, a form of psychological resistance, 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.
You can find more about mental illness stigma on the Stop Stigma page.