Language about Suicide (Part 1): The Power of Words

Written by on April 13, 2013 in All Posts, Misc, Terminology with 16 Comments

Language about suicideMost people in the suicide prevention community are passionate about using language that does not stigmatize those who die by or attempt suicide, or their loved ones. Unfortunately, this language is different from the terms that ordinary folks commonly use.

“Committed Suicide” vs. “Died by Suicide”

It is not at all uncommon to hear someone say, or to read in a news account, that someone commits suicide. This is a pervasive term. Yet the word “commits” often has negative connotations.

Think of what else the word “commits” is used for. Somebody commits murder. Or commits rape. Or commits robbery. What is the common denominator? The word “commits” in combination with a noun often signifies a crime or another act of wrongdoing, such as “adultery.”

A person who attempts suicide or dies by suicide is experiencing deep emotional pain, hopelessness, or mental illness – or all of the above. Such pain does not make someone a criminal. But the word “commits” makes suicide sound like a crime. For this reason, in this blog I will use the term “died by suicide,” a neutral, factual term.

“Completed Suicide”

Some suicide prevention activists use the term “completed suicide” instead of “committed suicide.” This term is problematic for several reasons.

First of all, it is not a phrase that comes naturally. If I say “he completed suicide” to somebody outside the suicide-prevention community, they are not likely to understand instinctually. And when they do understand, they are not likely to use the term themselves, because they want to be understood by others.

The other problem with the term “completed suicide” is that “complete” typically is associated with success. “I completed a project.” “She completed graduate school.” “Now I am complete.”

Suicide is not a project to be completed. From a suicide prevention standpoint, I would much rather this undertaking remain unfinished, a quality that usually is undesirable, but not in this case.

Rather than “she completed suicide,” it is fitting to say, “She died by suicide.”

“Successful Attempt” and “Failed Attempt”

I often will hear people say “she attempted suicide and failed” or “it was a successful suicide.” Again, connotations are important. Success typically is good. Failure typically is bad. From a suicide prevention standpoint, in this case “success” is profoundly bad, and “failure” is a gift.

We certainly do not want someone who survives a suicide attempt to then feel like a failure. For this reason, I avoid the terms related to success and failure. Instead, I will say somebody survived an attempt, or died by suicide. Alternatively, I sometimes refer to a nonfatal suicide attempt.

Sensitivity to Language

All in all, the key is to be sensitive about what we say and about any other meanings our words might have. If you are not active in the suicide prevention community, you might view these guidelines as another form of political correctness. Perhaps they are. Sometimes, political correctness is good, especially when it helps, in whatever ways possible, vulnerable people and those who love them.

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  1. MarshallD says:

    This is nonsensical political correctness. People COMMIT – yes I use it & have not seen any convincing reason not to – suicide for a number of reasons, not all equivalent.
    There are those who commit suicide because the weight of their problems is unbearable, those who do it as a form of protest, those who do it because they can’t bear the shame of some other act or personal failing, those who commit suicide to avoid capture, imprisonment, especially those who murder others before killing themselves.
    Let’s focus on those last ones, such as Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Elementary slaughter), Marc Lepine (Montreal Massacre), Eric Harris + Dylan Klebold (Columbine High School shootings).
    The sum total of the dead of those few notable mass murders exceeds 50.
    Add in the dead from last year’s Orlando night club massacre and you’ve broken a HUNDRED.
    Now that last killing field, *committed* by Omar Mateen is one where the perpetrator did NOT die directly by his own hand but by police gunfire.
    One can argue that he committed “suicide by cop” as there was a slim chance that he would be taken alive.
    Were none of those deaths crimes? Are we not allowed to think of those men as murderers?
    Were they merely unfortunates who were possessed by the demon of mental illness and were merely the tools of a force we barely understand & can rarely exorcise?
    If the self-inflicted deaths of those killers were not crimes then how can the harrowing of their victims not be the same?
    Or is dealing death ONLY a crime when it’s done to someone else but merely an unfortunate act when self-inflicted, even when the act is committed at the same time, in the same venue and with the same weapons wielded by the same hands as the murder of others?

    What about suicide bombers, how should their deaths & those of their victims be perceived?

  2. Md hasibul says:

    Suiciding is a murder!
    Think, why do we murder? Most of the time when someone become an obstacle to my sake or to my own peace of mind etc.

    Now, when i myself become the obstacle against myself try to kill myself. No matter how depression i am suffering from or how insane i was… i am a muderer.

    So it’s a crime… its a violence.

    Its committing suicide!

    • Anon says:

      Interesting that you say this as the term “Committed Suicide” comes from the era when suicide was actually illegal and you faced a prison sentence if you survived the attempt

    • eacooper says:

      Nope. Willful suicide is dying from the terminal disease called depression. Some sick people hurl themselves off buildings because they believe they can fly. Some people kill everyone in their home because they believe Satan will destroy the world unless they listen to his message. Such people are psychotic, and they are not criminals either; they are rather “not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have used these terms myself before I had the excruciating experience.. At which time I chose ” She took herself to the Lord” She had faith He would be her comfort when she lost hope of finding it here. RIP my angel~ Sarah.. Forever 20

  4. Anonymous says:

    My son died also at the age of 33. I am not certain that he had a correct diagnosis. He may have had bipolar disorder. I also felt unable to access help for him when I felt it was needed.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My Son Died, He Took his own Life, and that is That!
    And, all The Suicide Hot line people Would Tell me When I Needed To Help Him
    Was That HE needed To call them, He needed to Want Their Help!
    They Should Call It The I Want To Live HotLine!
    People Who Want To Take Their Own Life cannot always Ask Strangers For Help!
    I was Lucky He called Me for Help,
    When he eventually took his life some months later, after Doctors told him he was OK and didn’t need to try to get help……..I became convinced the medical community is wY off……….PS I am a formerly trained crisis intervention student ,from a family of medical professionals!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Anonymous, the pain and anger you feel not only about your son’s suicide, but also about professionals having been unable to help him, must be intense. I am going to write a post soon about suicides that occur while (or shortly after) the person is under the care of a mental health professional, and the questions that survivors often have about why the professional was not able to prevent their loved one’s suicide. No doubt, negligence and malpractice sometimes occur. But it also is a sad fact that even mental health professionals who do good, solid work have limitations in their ability to predict and prevent all suicides. This does not make it any easier to bear, I know, and actually may make it harder. I am so sorry for your loss.

    • Anonymous says:

      So sorry for your loss..

    • AR&MR says:

      My brother died by sucicide while in jail. He had previous attempts and the hospitals kept sending him home. The jail did not do their job leaving him off his medication and without supervision. The process was the same seeking and seeking help until the help was no longer needed. He was gone. I will forever be more mindful when people look to me for help. Thank you all for sharing.

  6. Troubled Soul says:

    As someone who has felt suicidal and is very sympathetic to those who consider doing the same, I find that this article is basically just political correctness to the extreme. Let’s work on getting the act of suicide a thing of the past as opposed to simply defining it in “happy” terms.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      “Troubled Soul,” thanks for sharing. My hope is that one day these terms will come so naturally that they no longer seem politically correct. But it can be very hard to change language, I know, and I understand that you and many others do not think changing language is necessary or, at least, a priority. It will just take time to see how suicide-related language evolves, if at all.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree 100%

    • Having a bad day says:

      Agreed. Sometimes the stigmatization and criminality are all that stand between myself and the act. What you want to destigmatize is the compulsions, obsessions and the need to ask for help– NOT THE ACT! The act is a violent crime against a life.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for saying that.