Is There a 'Correct' Way to Talk About Suicide?

As attitudes towards mental illness evolve, our language needs an update. Here’s why we don’t say “commit suicide," and what to say instead.

Aug 26, 2022 UPDATED
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Yes, it's optimal to be sensitive and avoid stigma when talking about suicide. For example, you've never heard that someone died by “committing cancer” or “committing a heart attack.”

Following this line of thinking, does it still make sense to say someone "committed suicide?"

No, it doesn't.

The phrase "“commit suicide” is now considered outdated, and harmful by experts including mental health professionals and journalists and editors.

Suicide is a cause of death. Suicide is not the result of a character flaw.

Consider how the word “commit” is used in English. It's almost never used in transitive form (as it is in the phrase “commit suicide”), unless it's referring to a crime.

For example, Americans will say: commit murder, commit perjury, commit a felony. 

We’re also familiar with “commit a sin.” This usage of the word commit has baked into it a sense of wrongdoing, of crime, and therefore necessarily a sense of fault.

In contrast, people are never said to be “committing' charity" or “committing affection."

Suicide is no one’s fault. 

When we connect suicide with fault (or even crime or sin) we demonize the people we’re talking about.

Treating those who die by suicide as criminal or immoral is insensitive to people who need the most compassion: both the deceased and those who are left behind.  

And beyond insensitive, it’s actually harmful.

Linking suicide and wrongdoing contributes to the already incredibly damaging stigma that surrounds it—and that stigma can stop people from seeking the help they need when in crisis.

Moreover, there’s evidence to support the idea that irresponsible language around suicide, particularly when used by the news media, can contribute to an increase in suicides.

In the four months after actor Robin Williams’ death in August 2014, suicide rates in the U.S. increased by almost 10% with 1,841 more cases than would have typically happened in that time period. A 2020 meta-analysis by the British Medical Journal found that this spike was due in part to media reporting on suicide.

Especially among young people, the way newspapers, media, and, yes, even blogs discuss suicide matters.

For those still saying or writing “commit suicide,” it’s time for you to start using alternatives, even if they feel awkward at first.

Changing the way you talk about suicide may change the way you (and people around you) think about suicide.

And that’s the first step to erasing stigma.

A Monarch by SimplePractice of a profile of a gray and black head.

Rather than 'commit suicide,' why we say 'die by suicide'

We’ve made huge strides in both how we treat —and how we talk about—mental health. 

"We now live in a time when we seek to understand people who experience suicidal ideation, behaviors and attempts, and to treat them with compassion rather than condemn them," one suicide prevention advisor said. “Part of this is to use appropriate, non-stigmatizing terminology when referring to suicide.”

You may have noticed the phrase “die by suicide” here on Monarch.

The passive voice in the latter phrase demonstrates that the agent of death is not the person who died, but the disease that precipitated that death.

A death by suicide is usually the tragic culmination of a battle with an illness—a mental illness.

In fact, suicide is considered a public health issue—like heart diseases or even COVID-19.

The language we use to talk about it should make that clear. 

What are the warning signs of suicide? 

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide, but may not be what causes a suicide. 

  • Talking about wanting to die

  • Looking for a way to kill oneself

  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

  • Talking about being a burden to others

  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated

  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

  • Displaying extreme mood swings

What to do if someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide

If someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, there is help. Here are some important reminders. 

  • Do not leave the person alone

  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, substances or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt

  • Text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text or dial 988.

  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Here are some additional resources:

Article originally published Jan 13, 2022. Updated Aug 26, 2022.

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