How we talk about suicide

As attitudes towards mental illness evolve, so should our language. Here’s why we don’t say “commit suicide.”

Oct 7, 2021 UPDATED
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You may have noticed the phrase “die by suicide” here on Monarch, and you may have thought that it looked...weird. When I first saw it, I was not a fan; I thought it was grammatically inelegant, and maybe even inaccurate. Die by killing self? so... die by fatality? die by death? I was much more familiar with the phrase “commit suicide.” 

As are most of us. We’ve seen the expression in headlines, in books, and even in some TV shows. But the fact is, “commit suicide” is considered outdated—and actually harmful—by experts like mental health professionals and journalists.

The grammar of suicide

Think about that word “commit.” It is essentially never used in transitive form (as in the phrase “commit suicide”), in modern English without referring to a crime: commit murder, commit perjury, commit a felony. 

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

We’re also familiar with “commit a sin.” One doesn’t “commit'' charity or “commit” affection. This usage of “commit” has baked into it a sense of wrongdoing, of crime, and therefore necessarily a sense of fault.

Suicide is no one’s fault. 

Words matter

The issue is more than just semantics—or maybe it’d be more accurate to say that semantics are more than just semantics. Words matter.

Ask any woman who has ever been called “sweetheart” by a colleague or boss, or any Black man who has ever been called “boy” by a white person. These words aren’t slurs in themselves, but they belittle and objectify the people they’re being used to describe. They’re actively damaging.

Similarly, 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 villainous 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. Stigmatization around suicide includes thinking it’s a sign of weakness or selfishness; and thinking of suicidal people as weak and selfish can make one more likely to die by suicide.

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

Shortly after actor Robin Williams’ death, suicide rates in the U.S. jumped by almost 10%. The British Medical Journal found that this spike was due in part to “the [media] guidelines not being fully followed.” Especially among young people, the way newspapers, media, and, yes, even blogs discuss suicide matters.

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

Suicide is a cause of death

We don’t say people “commit cancer” or “commit heart attacks.” We treat almost all causes of death as a faultless phenomenon.

Suicide is a cause of death. Suicide is not the result of a character flaw, it’s the fatal result of a disease.

“Died by suicide” reflects this. The passive voice shows that the agent of death is not the person who died, but the disease that precipitated that death. A suicide death is usually the tragic culmination of a battle with an illness—a mental illness. Just as those who die from physical illnesses, those who die from mental illnesses are not to be blamed for dying. 

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. 

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

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

Suicide is not the result of a character flaw, it’s the fatal result of a disease.

If you’re still saying “commit suicide,” it’s time for you to think about 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.

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)  

  • 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 Jun 3, 2021. Updated Oct 7, 2021.

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