Language matters when discussing sensitive topics, and there is a phrase still floating around that I hear on the news, read in online articles, and even see people using in comment sections and in person.
I realize it's a stretch to ask people to break the stigma surrounding suicide, and then have a follow up list of "no-no" words...but, this really matters and I'll tell you why....
Please stop using the phrase "Committed / commit" suicide. I know that's what's been said for years, and what may naturally roll off your tongue or fingers. It's a hard habit to break, and I realize it might be a big ask - but follow me here...because there are some REALLY important reasons WHY we are trying to evolve the language when talking about suicide.
Let's start with the basic definition of the word 'commit'.
verb carry out or perpetrate (a mistake, crime, or immoral act). "he committed an uncharacteristic error"
Yes, I know an alternate meaning is to 'pledge' or 'bind' as in "I commit my life to you", but we're not talking about that, ya goofball.
See some words in the definition that stand out? "Mistake". "Crime". "Immoral act".
Historically, many US states considered suicide to be a felony, a punishable offense. It was thought to be an act of 'self murder', and...well MURDER is illegal, so should suicide...
I know, right? How would you charge someone with that anyways? I mean, they are no longer alive...so do you charge the family? This also started the stigma around suicide - if a loved one took their own life, it used to be it was just an "accident", and nobody spoke of it - because, shame and fear of arrest I guess...
Yes. Suicide used to be a CRIME. Crimes can be committed. You can commit murder. You can commit arson. You can commit theft. These are all despicable acts and fit the definition of "commit".
Suicide is not a "despicable" act or atrocity, it's the symptom and crescendo of a myriad of problems and issues that someone is dealing with, and many times when someone dies by suicide (not 'commits'), there are typically a million little things that led up to them making that decision.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, "a suicide death is not “caused” by a single event, such as a job loss or divorce, since research shows no one takes their life for one single reason, but rather a combination of factors."
Oftentimes depression and other mental health conditions are underlying that they either didn't talk about openly, or they just didn't realize they were dealing with these issues and suffered in silence. Someone in their darkest times, in their most excruciating pain, feels like the only way they can shut the pain off is to end their life. Someone in that moment is not making rational decisions and generally just wants to turn off the pain. They are not "committing" a heinous act, they are doing something in their mind that feels like a logical escape.
You cannot "commit" cancer. You cannot "commit" heart failure. You cannot "commit" COVID-19. How silly would that sound if you lost a loved one to cancer and you told people that "my loved one committed cancer." It just sounds ludicrous. Once you think about it like this, its equally as ludicrous to say someone "committed" suicide.
Now you may be thinking "ok, so what the heck am I supposed to say? If you going to take away something in my vocabulary, give me a suitable replacement."
I got you, friend...and you may have seen or heard me use it a few times before.
They DIED BY suicide or "took their own life".
It's a much more tactful and factual way to speak on a suicide.
My Uncle Rick, died by suicide. He took his own life. He did not commit a heinous act, he did not do something nefarious or illegal - he was in a horribly dark place dealing with a mountain of life issues, mental health issues that he either didn't know about or didn't know how to confront, and sadly made the decision to end his life.
My request to you, as a mental health advocate, in an effort to soften the discussion around suicide and reduce stigma - try to add this to your language repertoire when talking about suicide moving forward.
How do we correct people? Not by being a dick, that's for sure. ha! But you can give suggestions to someone without shaming them into using the word "commit" - after all, the best way to change a mind or persuade a certain way, is to educate.
When I hear or see someone use the phrase "commit", I will often respond with the new language to echo what they have said, and express my empathy. I'll usually respond with "I'm so sorry your loved one died by suicide, I can't imagine what you're going through." This will go further than "Hey, don't say commit suicide, Carol - okay!??" Carol will most likely snap back and nothing is gained from that, amirite?
There is nothing wrong with talking about suicide, you aren't going to "plant the idea" in someone's head to take their own life, research has proven this time and time again and has found quite the opposite. Someone who may be considering suicide is more open to TALKING about it, and letting out their feelings - and TALK SAVES LIVES.
I've heard stories of people who attempted suicide and leading up to the moment, they just wanted someone to be there and LISTEN to them, someone to ask them if they are okay, someone to say "I know you must be going through a lot, I want you to know I'm here for you and you're not alone."
If you know someone who is talking about suicide, you should ask them about it directly - "Are you thinking about suicide?" is an uncomfortable but POWERFUL question. If you don't know what to say or you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, you can always call the national suicide prevention lifeline - and they would be glad to get you some helpful pointers - either just to you, or maybe with your friend/loved one right there on the phone with you.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
(800) 273-TALK (8255)
Little by little, we can chisel away at the shroud of stigma that surrounds suicide and normalize the conversation just as we would talk about COVID so openly.