A quick Google search using the words “committed suicide” pulls up countless links to newspaper headlines that practically shout this phrase with their bolded typeface, indelibly stamping it into our society’s lexicon. So if it is standard speak to use this phrase in our society, can there really be anything wrong with it? Unequivocally, yes. Words have power and so does the suicide terminology we use.
The way we communicate about suicide reveals how we think about suicide, and how we think about suicide has everything to do with prevention. When we describe a person as having “committed” suicide, we are equating their actions with criminal behavior, as in the person has “committed” some sort of wrongdoing. Consider for a moment how such language, and perhaps the underlying assumptions that accompany it, impact suicidal individuals and their loved ones.
If a person is in tremendous pain, but perceives their society as condemning those who die by suicide, will they feel any less pain? Will they feel supported by their community or the larger society? Will they internalize that something must be seriously wrong with them to even consider such an act? Will they seek help if they anticipate judgment and nonacceptance? Would you?
Why your alternative suicide terminology may still be problematic
Many individuals working in the healthcare field are already well-aware that words like “committed suicide” are stigmatizing and have actively avoided and discouraged the use of this phrase for some time. As an alternative, some individuals say, “completed suicide.” This phrase is also commonly used to differentiate deaths by suicide from suicide attempts. But, as Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW so eloquently writes in her suicide prevention blog, use of the phrase “completed suicide” also poses problems.
Completion of something implies success, whereas something that is incomplete conveys failure. Perhaps it conjures up images of ticking off items on a to-do list, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the action of placing that check mark by a long overdue or involved project. In a similar vein, use of suicide terminology like “successful suicide” or “failed suicide attempt” perpetuate stigma by their positive connotation when someone dies by suicide, and their opposing connotation when someone “fails” at suicide.
As Freedenthal points out, “From a suicide prevention standpoint, in this case ‘success’ is profoundly bad, and ‘failure’ is a gift.” The Maine Suicide Prevention Program also points out on their website that “completed suicide” implies that the person may have had prior attempts, which is not always the case. While prior attempts are a risk factor for suicide, it is also important for people to understand that a person can die by suicide even in the absence of prior attempts.
Our shorthand for manipulation
Another problematic term that is more widespread among clinical circles than by the larger society involves “suicidal gestures.” This term is often used to describe self-injury that occurs as a form of communicating distress, but in the absence of an intent to die. It is also used to describe suicidal behaviors with low potential for lethality. The problem with this term is the connotation that the person is somehow trying to manipulate a situation with their behavior. This can lead to dismissiveness on the part of the person’s support system and even their clinical providers.
The assumption that a person’s suicidal behaviors reflect a “gesture” as opposed to a genuine attempt to die may compromise clinical assessment. It can provide a false sense of security to family members and providers who assume the person’s behaviors can be dismissed as somehow less serious. It undermines the gravity of the situation, can lead to harsh and judgmental reactions from others, and can exacerbate risk when a person experiencing considerable pain is instead branded as a manipulator.
Non-stigmatizing suicide terminology choices
So what can you say to destigmatize suicide and create a climate of healing and support? Experts suggest the following:
- Use the phrase “died by suicide” instead of “committed” or “completed” suicide. Similar to how we would describe that someone “died of an infection” rather than having “committed an infection,” this phrase communicates how they died but without the judgement and negative connotations.
- Use “suicide attempt” instead of “failed” or “unsuccessful suicide.”
- Avoid describing suicidal behaviors and non-suicidal self-injury as “gestures.”
- Avoid use of the word “suicide” in all contexts other than when referring to a person who has died by taking their own life (e.g., “fashion suicide” or “political suicide”).
- Describe the loved ones of an individual who died by suicide as “suicide loss survivors” to avoid confusion. When “suicide survivor” is used instead, sometimes people do not know if you are referring to a loss survivor or to a person who themselves has survived an attempt.
While making such shifts in our language may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to suicide prevention, these are relatively simple changes that we can all make to reduce the shame and stigma attached to suicide.
By reducing the stigma conveyed through our suicide terminology choices, we can all create a space of understanding and support, allowing suicidal individuals the opportunities to step out of the darkness and access the help they need and deserve.