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

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.

“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.

©Stacey Freedenthal 2013.

Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, is the author of “Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals,” a psychotherapist and consultant, and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

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  1. anonymous says:

    Personally I am in a committed relationship, I committed to my graduate program, I got an internship commitment, and I am committed to graduating in May 2020. Although this article ONLY talks about bad commitments we do have good ones too!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Anonymous, absolutely! “Commit” is a rich word with many different meanings. As you note, it can signify deep passion, loyalty, dedication, etc. But when “commit” is used as a verb and followed by an act (not by “to”), it typically has negative connotations. There is an exception. Sometimes I see the phrase “commit random acts of kindness.” But mostly when people talk about committing acts, the acts are bad.

      • Haruchai says:

        Some suicides are crimes, for example, Jeffrey Epstein’s.
        He committed suicide to escape justice.
        Same goes for a number of mass shooters and murderers of domestic partners.

  2. Nate says:

    This has helped me cope and had lifted a big weight off of me. Thank you for your wisdom I apperciate this so much.. It had lifted all the guilt off of me in so many ways

  3. Wm. Regis Mc Devitt says:

    The dark energy of suicide? It has become frightening prevalent among the sensitive and super sensitive. Sadly — in a world losing its spiritual values suicide is an escape route. Hopefully to another more peaceful energy field. Obviously this one is in rapid decay. Sadly I was raped and tortured at the age of five. The summer of 1943. The pattern continue. It is a nightmare story. To made matters worse I was severely dyslexic. Later a lifelong homosexual. Thankfully I was able to help many troubled people over the decades. I continue to work on: LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES: an autobiography. However daily thoughts of suicide prevail. I want out of here big time. Why? Wow! therein lie and extraordinary answer. It has everything to do with prevailing energy fields.
    Wm. Regis Mc Devitt

  4. maryw says:

    What also bothers me, is it is my understanding, that human beings who choose suicide do so because they no longer want to live life? Now there is a difference between those who no longer want to live life versus those who thru the act of our government’s abuse of power, have had their medicine forcibly denied access to, thus are living every day in forced physical pain from medical condition, and death is the only way to stop their physical pain. These people WANT life,they want to live life, but cannot live life in forced physical pain. Thus, they are literally being tortured to death,,,not,,suicide,,,maryw

  5. I can appreciate the effort expressed in this article, but I disagree with some of these alternates being better replacements for the action verbs used to describe suicide and the outcome. Having been suicidal in my youth and also a surviver of people who committed suicide, I will never embrace the words for the softer, more sensitive side of this act. Nor will I ever take it lightly when someone says they want to kill themselves or not be here anymore. And when I speak of it, I will always say, “they committed suicide,” because they have violated the natural law of living and survival. And most leave broken hearts and horror in the wake of their act. Pain that never dies for those who choose life no matter how unbearable it might be at times. And seeing a loved one snuff out the precious light of life triggers one of the most unbearable moments in a living person’s spirit. Such an action changes lives forever and sometimes their action prompts the sensitive soul trying to deal with the loss to do the same. What is not criminal about either of those outcomes?
    I also feel that saying someone had “a failed suicide attempt” is negative and should remain negative although I am not opposed to “survived an attempt” as that is accurate also. Social shunning of an act is a powerful tool to make a person think twice before doing something so desperate. I feel we must continue to appeal to the people struggling to keep their life in the game by calling suicide what it is. An act of extreme self indulgence when their pain becomes more important than life itself. It is a merciless act that threatens the foundations of faith, love, and happiness of those left to live with it the rest of their lives. I think the words used are harsh. They are judgemental. And I think the stigma they carry prevents more suicides than encourage them. Just one perspective from someone who continues to survive her pain and still believes life is an honor.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:


      Thank you for sharing your views. You do so with eloquent and poignant words. I’m sorry for the pain and losses you’ve suffered, and I’m grateful your’e still here.

      You raise many points, and I know a great many people share your views. I embrace an alternative view, which is that the person who dies by suicide is as much the victim as the people left behind. I write more about this here: Is It Selfish to Die in a Tornado?

      I hope you’re right that the stigma around suicide “prevents more suicide than encourages them.” I fear, though, that stigma prevents many people from getting help. But I do also recognize that for some people, the stigma of the act may be a deterrent. These are important areas for researchers to plumb.

      Thank you for contributing to the discussion, Virginia!

  6. 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?

    • Andy says:

      Most people who die by suicide dont die during or directly after the commission of a felony. I’ve been very suicidal before, to the point where I was about to do it and was only saved by circumstances. Never in my life, neither times when I was suicidal nor times when I wasn’t, have I committed a crime at all, much less a violent one. Suicide is a hard decision to come to, and one that most people don’t take lightly. Most people don’t wake up one day and say “hey, I think I’m going to take my own life today.” There’s usually a great deal of mental and emotional anguish involved when someone does finally chose to take their own life.

      The percentage of suicides that involve the commission of a violent crime is so minuscule that in most conversations, unless they are the actual topic of the conversation, they’re actually irrelevant.

    • Hyacinth Samuel says:

      Thank you for your articles. They are all so very helpful to me.

      I suppose suicide is always a result of pain and fear. Although some perpetrators/victims are selfish enough to take others with them.

  7. 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”.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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