The language of suicide, and why it matters

As you may have noticed, whenever I discuss suicide on this blog, I’m always very careful on how I phrase it, although researching this blog entry has made me realize that I’ve been messing this up to. There are words and phrases you should and should not use when describing suicide – here’s a quick overview about some best practices.

Why “committed suicide” is bad

This one is more obvious and stigma oriented. Simply put, “committed” is used to describe a crime. Someone committed a murder. They committed a robbery.

Committed, in this context, is usually associated with a moral judgement, and that’s not a way that any of us want to describe suicide. Suicide and mental illness shouldn’t be associated with a moral failing. Doing so can make people who suffer feel weak or ashamed, and that can serve to increase the stigma that surrounds both mental illness. The language we use should encourage others to seek help, not drive them into a closet of fear and shame.

Why “completed suicide” is also bad

This is the phrase I’d always used – I viewed it as preferable – but this is a really good point:

Think of the sense of accomplishment you feel when you complete a big project. Then think of the disappointment you feel when you don’t.

Completion is good, and suicide isn’t.

To complete something conveys success; to leave something incomplete conveys failure.

Indeed, we do associate completion with success, and no one’s suicide should be viewed as a success. So, there must be something else.

The alternatives

I think the AP is on track when it comes to these alternatives. The phrases used here are preferable, in that they are accurate and avoid the moral connotations that comes with “completed” and “committed.”

Language matters. Words matter. We know that the way we describe an action can unintentionally pass judgement over the action and can increase or decrease the stigma that comes with it. All of us have an obligation to be careful in the way we talk, and I’m going to be better at this from now on.

And one more thing: In our society, there’s been a backlash against being “politically correct” when it comes to how we describe things. My experience has been that this backlash is more orientated around being a decent and non-racist person, but that’s besides the point.

The way we discuss suicide has nothing to do with political correctness. It has everything to do with creating an environment that makes people feel safe, that supports (rather than harms) their mental health, and that can increase the odds of someone seeking help instead of ending their life.

Any thoughts you want to add? Any other language recommendations? I’d love to hear them – please let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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