The terminology of suicide
To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, Tonic editor Simon examines the use of the term “commit suicide” and why it should be consigned to the history books.
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The term “commit suicide” is still commonly used in the United Kingdom, often by people who don’t realise the history and implications surrounding it.
Let’s examine the history and unintended meanings, and then look at some alternatives.
Historically, suicide has been considered both a sin and a criminal offence.
Taking one’s own life has been condemned or forbidden in many of the world’s major religions, including the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the Dharmic religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.
Many countries have historically considered suicide a criminal offence, and a significant number still do. If someone tries to take their own life in a country where suicide is illegal, but survives, they will be charged with a criminal offence. Seeking to punish someone in a mental health crisis, or facing such adversity that suicide appears the only way out, seems the height of cruelty, and yet this was the case in England and Wales until the Suicide Act 1961, when suicide’s status as a criminal offence ended.
The use of the word “commit” implies that a sin or criminal offence has been committed. Is this really appropriate for someone facing such adversity that they have attempted suicide?
The phrases “committed a sin”, “committed murder” and “committed an offence” are commonplace. The implication is that something has been done that is either morally wrong or illegal. In these contexts, the use of the word “committed” seems reasonable, even factual.
Such language is, however, not appropriate when discussing suicide, as it stigmatises people who need help and support. It is also factually incorrect, as suicide is no longer illegal.
While the phrase “commit suicide” remains engrained in the U.K., steps are being taken to change this and things are getting better:
Calls to end use of the term have been supported by MPs from all major political parties and leading mental health charity Mind.
Phrases to avoid and what to use instead
Phrases to avoid:
Commit suicide / committed suicide
Cry for help
A ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ suicide attempt
Phrases to use instead:
Taking one’s own life
Die by suicide / death by suicide
Ending one’s life