Most 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.
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.