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The Semantics of Suicide

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To many of us, “committing suicide” is a phrase that rolls of our tongues. We don’t think of the implications of saying this. You may think I am being fussy, but this is an important point. Up until recently “committing suicide” was an accepted term. So what has changed, and why does it need to?

In 1961, the Suicide Act decriminalized suicide in England and Wales, meaning those who attempted suicide could no longer be prosecuted. Previous to this, those who attempted suicide may have been fined, prosecuted or even given jail time for the act. The idea of criminalizing attempted suicide or “self-murder,” as it was sometimes called, has been around since the 13th century. For attempted suicide to be criminalized, it had to be proven that the person attempting the act was sane. This may seem laughable to us now. We have the insight that attempting suicide and suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts) are the product of severe mental health problems, but this was not always the case. Although suicide was decriminalized nearly 50 years ago, it is only in recent years that mental health activists have encouraged people to adopt the term “died by suicide.”

The language we use in everyday life has far-reaching consequences. We may think being politically correct has gone too far, but for many this is an important issue. Using the term “committing” retains the stigma of suicide as a crime. To me it says you don’t understand the severity of an illness that brings someone to this point in their life. It tells me you don’t take what has happened to me, or others like me, seriously. We need to understand that people who have suicidal thoughts and may
even attempt to or die by suicide do not make these decisions lightly. When I had these thoughts I wasn’t “copping out” on life. It wasn’t the “easy” route, but at some points it did seem like the only available option.

If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, then you probably need to be reading this. I’m not asking you to stand in my shoes. One of the things I struggle most with in mental illness is that as desperately as we need to people to understand, unless you’ve been here, it’s unlikely you can. We could all do with more understanding when it comes to mental health and mental illness. We need to understand how the language we use can reinforce discrimination, which already has a huge impact on society.

To use another mental health soundbite that is big in the press at the moment, we all need to be more “mindful” about mental health, both our own and others’, and how our words have the power to affect change. By getting our lingo right, we show we are an enlightened population. Until this happens you will find me reminding
people of the difference between “committing” and dying by suicide.

To find out more about suicide prevention click here. To support Papyrus prevention of young suicide click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Image by Andjelka Simic

Originally published: October 19, 2016
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