Language Matters: Committed Suicide vs. Completed Suicide vs. Died by Suicide

Written by on September 21, 2017 in All Posts, Misc, Suicide, Terminology with 22 Comments

People in the suicide prevention field discourage the use of the term “committed suicide.” The word “committed” (when followed by a noun instead of “to”) is generally reserved for crimes or acts that many people view as immoral. Someone commits burglary, or murder, or rape, or perjury, or adultery – or something else bad.

Suicide is bad, yes, but the person who dies by suicide is not committing a crime or sin. Rather, the act of suicide almost always is the product of mental illness, intolerable stress, or trauma.

To portray suicide as a crime or sin stigmatizes those who experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. This stigma, in turn, can deter people from seeking help from friends, family, and professionals.

As Susan Beaton and colleagues note in their article, “Suicide and Language: Why We Shouldn’t Use the ‘C’ Word”:

“Suicide is not a sin and is no longer a crime, so we should stop saying that people ‘commit’ suicide. We now live in a time when we seek to understand people who experience suicidal ideation, behaviours and attempts, and to treat them with compassion rather than condemn them.”

“Completed Suicide” vs. “Died by Suicide”

Warning: I am a word geek. I love language, and I also love discussing its intricacies. Some will deride this discussion of suicide terminology as political correctness gone awry. But language has power. If changing our language can help suicidal people to feel safer asking for help, then changing language can save lives. 

With that said, I prefer the term “died by suicide” because it avoids the judgmental connotations of “committed suicide.” 

Some people advocate for using the term “completed suicide” instead. I urge people not to use the term “completed” suicide. I explained my objections to the term in this post, and they bear repeating.

What’s Wrong with the Term “Completed Suicide”

Think of the sense of accomplishment you feel when you complete a big project. Then think of the disappointment you feel when you don’t.

Completion is good, and suicide isn’t.

To complete something conveys success; to leave something incomplete conveys failure. In fact, at universities, if a student receives an “incomplete” in a class and doesn’t complete their remaining requirements on time, the “I” converts to an “F.”

Some suicide prevention advocates use the term “completed suicide” because they view it as an acceptable alternative to “committed suicide.” Not all suicide prevention advocates agree, of course. The State of Maine’s Suicide Prevention Program, for example, states on its website, “Both terms (committed and completed) perpetuate the stigma associated with suicide and are strongly discouraged.”

The term “completed suicide” is especially popular among academics. A search on Google Scholar yields 470 articles where “completed suicide” is used in the title. Here are just a few examples:

Those examples actually bring me to a different complaint about the term “completed suicide.” When “completed” is used as an adjective for suicide (instead of a verb), it is redundant.

Characteristics of completed suicides = characteristics of suicides.

Risk of completed suicide = risk of suicide.

Subsequent completed suicide = subsequent suicide.

Completed suicide is suicide. Why not just say “suicide,” then?

More about the Term “Died by Suicide”

The Associated Press dictates the standards for appropriate language in most mainstream newspapers and magazines (but not academic journals). The AP changed its style book recently to discourage the use of the phrase “committed suicide.” Instead, it recommends alternative terms like “killed himself,” “took her life,” and “died by suicide.”

I have no objections to any of these terms. As a direct substitute for “committed suicide,” I prefer “died by suicide.” I’ve heard only a couple complaints about this term, and none is that it perpetuates stigma against people who die by suicide, as the term “committed suicide” does, or that it portrays the act of suicide as an accomplishment, as the term “completed suicide” does.

The first complaint is that “died by suicide” is a little clunky. Usually, we say somebody died of something (like, “she died of cancer”) not by something. Suicide is different, I guess, because the term “died by her own hand” also is in the vernacular.

The second complaint I’ve heard from folks, especially my students, is that “died by suicide” is an unfamiliar term and hard to get used to using. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Over time, the more you substitute the term “died by suicide,” the more natural it becomes. Likewise, over time, the more you say “died by suicide,” the more the term “committed suicide” will hurt your ears.

And if you’re like me, “completed suicide” will hurt your ears even worse. So please, I urge you, say something else.

Copyright 2017 by Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. Written for SpeakingOfSuicide.com. All Rights Reserved. Photos purchased from Fotolia.com.

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  1. Doug says:

    Thank you for the article. Any perspectives or suggestions for using the phrase “attempted suicide”? I always feel a little uncomfortable with this phrase as well, but don’t know any alternatives

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      You’re welcome!

      Some people say “self-harmed” instead of “attempted suicide, but that can include people who harm themselves without intending to die.

      I myself don’t have an objection to the phrases “attempted suicide” or “tried to kill himself” or “tried to kill herself.” However, there are some who say we shouldn’t use the phrase “kill oneself” because it implies violence and volition. (That’s a topic for another blog post, perhaps.)

      Semantics are complex, especially around a topic as tragic and painful as suicide. Thanks for being sensitive to these matters!

  2. Kimberly says:

    Regarding the discussion of “sin,” it’s best to leave that to pastors and spiritual directors. There are a variety of religions, each with its own doctrine. Psychology is not a religion. It is an overreach for any psychotherapist to declare infallible dogma.

    I understand that there may be prejudice in the field of psychology regarding past religious doctrines that were held by one or a number of religions, but it’s an error to generalize. In my own Church, for 2,000 years, people who die by suicide are not kept out of the hallowed burial ground. There are ancient accounts of saints who received messages from the souls of people who died by suicide, reassuring the survivors that God granted them the grace of contrition and pardon for their sins. This isn’t a belief shared by all religions, and I wouldn’t expect you to endorse it. But neither do I expect you to provide spiritual guidance by falsely “reassuring” people that suicide is never a sin. We understand that mental illness is a human weakness in the same way that every other illness and daily imperfection is a weakness, a result of being born into a fallen, broken world, and it’s not something to be ashamed of in itself, because the saints were just like us. In my Church, we pray for the forgiveness of sins, including the sins of the faithful departed. I simply wouldn’t refer anyone to this website, because it teaches false doctrine.

  3. Rudy says:

    I don’t like that “died by suicide” doesn’t underscore agency at the grammatical level, the way “committed/completed suicide” or “killed himself/herself” do.

  4. Jen in Maine says:

    This is a really tough one. My father took his own life in 1996. In 2004 I worked for the State of Maine’s Suicide Prevention Program. It was there I learned to say “completed” suicide. I never liked that term, but that’s the term we were taught to say. I find it ironic they are discouraging that term now.

  5. Jennifer says:

    Completed as a word choice is helpful if viewed in parallel with the fact that there are far more “attempted”suicides than “completed” ones. Self injury also complicates the discussion somewhat because it might look “suicidal” to cut but rarely is the injury dangerous or meant as an attempt to end life.

  6. Alex says:

    I prefer “Committed Suicide” or “Killed them/him/herself.” The second one is usually the go to. “Died by Suicide” is a mouthful. But if it works for you, then go for it!

  7. Suzy Bannigan says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for addressing this issue. I appreciate these observations and language choices and I am grateful to you for heightening our awareness of same.

  8. ME (Mentally Exhausted) says:

    WOW!!!! How ’bout we all just see it and call it what it truly is!!!! A loss of life. A untapped potential of wonderful purpose that was unable to be fulfilled because the suffering was to great to the one we lost. Wake up, people!!!! Also, I read something about it no longer being a crime, really. If that truly is the case then how come someone I knew personally got 2 welfare checks called on him when he specifically told the crisis worker, screaming and yelling because his life was extremely frustrating and getting more and more less worth living “I wish I was dead. I cannot live like this anymore. I am so stressed I out every decision I make just ends up with my life becoming even more unlivable. Oh, and please, I have no interest in hurting myself or anyone else. All I need is just an ear to acknowledge my suffering and frustration.” Not 20 minutes later, the sheriff deputies were pounding on his door, which caused the problem. Not to mention the gentleman he sub-leased to had been a nightmare. Oh, and he specifically couldn’t take the chance of his life becoming worse at the cost of being caged like a criminal. The “poor guy” (quite the contrary, actually) more like “screaming for HELP, begging for peace, needing relief from the constant abuse, called the crisis worker to let go of the frustration, told the “trusted” (because she was “qualified” according to those who determined such things) worker specifically that having the law show up at his house, which just the possibility of him being caged would just make it worse, and what did she do. I was that sufferer!!!! I suffer because I am trying to figure out how to make life livable. I am 47 y.o. and my first lock-up in a psychiatric hospital was over 30 years ago. My experiences over my lifespan are what becomes life to me. I have been working on better understanding my “mis-firing” brain more so now than ever before. I want society to have a chance to get to know the effects they have had on me, when all I ever wanted was value found in acceptance. Instead my legal right to protect myself and my loved ones was “illegally” taken from me, which leaves me more and more abused. From reading Dr. Amen’s book, along with my personal experiences, it definitely makes sense that the harder I try (to live better) the worse it gets. Oh and he also points out how getting the right diagnosis is key to the right treament. He further acknowledges that for the one suffering the wrong treatment is often times worse than getting no-treatment at all. I am writing a book, I guess. It is critical that we listen, and hear, and respect what we need to. I may not know what would HELP me, but I sure know whatever doesn’t help just makes it much worse.

  9. moviedoc says:

    I prefer “killed himself/herself.” And nobody dies “by suicide.” Someone who kills herself can do so by overdose, jumping, shooting themselves or other causes. Suicide , like homicide, specifies WHO killed you, not WHAT killed you.

  10. Anonymous says:

    My daughter took her life I hate the term committed suicide she did not commit a crime she was ill and frightened x

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      I’m very sorry for your loss, Anonymous. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I have heard many other survivors of suicide loss say that the term “committed suicide” adds salt to their wound.

      Also, in case you’re interested, FYI, I list resources here for people who have lost a loved one to suicide.

    • Bastet says:

      I also lost my daughter to suicide. I’m perplexed by the MANY people who insist on proclaiming that someone “committed” suicide….and say that the phrase “died from suicide” is inaccurate. It’s frustrating. My daughter did NOT die as a criminal. She had mental health issues.

  11. Nyasha Levy says:

    Excellent article. I see all points but now I think I prefer to use died of suicide. I now know my son was not well and needed help.

  12. Jen Withrow, LICSW says:

    I say completed suicide or died by suicide. When I say completed suicide, I have more people asking why I say it that way. This gives me the opportunity to provide them some information. If I can educate someone on this topic, maybe they too will be open to changing they way they think and speak. People don’t ask why you say died by suicide= no educational opportunity. I lost my 17 year old son.

  13. Diane says:

    I agree, words have power. I have had a hard time with the language of someone who has taken their own life. I couldn’t have even imagined I would even be a part of this discussion. My mother ‘died by suicide’ in 1999. She used a .38 and left a note blaming my sister and me. I found the suuport group, Survivors of Suicide, and many resources and have finally healed, as has my sister.
    I thank you for your article, as it does help when the language is clear. There was a silver lining in all of this, as it raised my awareness of Suicide and subsequently I was able to save not only my own son’s life, but two other’s as well.
    Suicide is a topic that needs to be discussed. As well as the mental illness that brings most people to even contemplate, death by suicide.

  14. Sheila Cmeron says:

    My first husband “died by suicide” in 2000. I went to support groups, seminars and counseling. The preferred term seemed to be completed suicide. To this day, I have a hard time with the wording. He did “die by his own hand” but he had mental health and physical issues. He shot himself in the heart and the bullet bounced around and stayed in his heart. He died by suicide. I also have a problem with the fact that seemingly everyone says a person passed. What ever happened to saying they died. Thank you for this article. I will say died by suicide from now on.

  15. Phyllis Crubaugh says:

    I say that my son completed suicide, because he had contemplated it for a long time. It fits.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Phyllis,

      I’m very sorry for your loss. How hard it must have been to watch as he contemplated suicide for a long time. Thanks for contributing here.

  16. Linda Snyder says:

    I just simplify it further. My husband suicided.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Linda,

      I’m sorry for your loss. I do see that language sometimes and I agree with you: it’s simple. And true.

      What I despise, though, is when someone refers to someone as “a suicide.” Someone who suicided was a person, not *a* suicide. Everyone is far more than the way that they died.

      (And now autocorrect is telling me “suicided” is not a word. Alas. The Oxford English Dictionary disagrees.)

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