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InPsych | The bulletin of The Australian Psychological Society Limited30
Professional practice
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. Part of this is to
use appropriate, non-stigmatising terminology when referring
to suicide.
Implications associated with ‘commit’
Attention to this issue is important because there are three
historically powerful and potentially stigmatising uses for the
word ‘commit’ which have implications when associated with the
word ‘suicide’.
1. The word ‘commit’ is commonly used in connection with
religious offences. Indeed suicide is considered wrong in
many religions (Cholbi, 2009). Over time suicide has been
regarded as a cardinal sin in some religions and is still often
considered a moral sin.
2. In the past, suicide was a criminal act in many countries.
For example, there was a legal prohibition against suicide in
England and Wales until the Suicide Act 1961 was introduced.
As well as decriminalising suicide, this Act made it an
offence to assist in a suicide, which had the unique effect
of criminalising an accessory when the principal has not
committed a crime. The law relating to suicide in Australia
varies between States and Territories, but it is no longer a
crime in any jurisdiction. In the State of Victoria for example,
the Crimes Act 1958, Section 6A, states “The rule of law
whereby it is a crime for a person to commit or to attempt to
commit suicide is hereby abrogated” (Crimes Act, 1958).
3. The word 'commit' has been applied to the incarceration of
people against their will in a mental institution. In many
countries care for those with mental illness can be sought
involuntarily (usually when the person is so unwell that they
are unable to admit themselves to care). This is often the only
occurrence, outside of committing a crime and being held,
where an individual can be detained without his or
her consent.
As suicide is viewed differently by different people (both those
with and without religious affiliations), is not considered a crime
in many parts of the world, and its association with mental illness
is not always applicable, using the word ‘commit’ within the
context of suicide is not only unnecessary, it is also harmful.
Stigmatising language
Suicide is a considerable public health issue with ripple effects
throughout the community. Those affected by suicide (whether
personally or due to the death of a person to whom they are
connected) are vulnerable and often stigmatised. We need to
talk more about suicide, and provide safe places for this to occur
in a manner that is helpful and healthy. However, such talk is
often steeped in concepts and language from the past (including
the use of the word ‘commit’) that perpetuate stigma, constrain
thinking and reduce help-seeking behaviour. Those bereaved
by suicide and those who have been suicidal themselves have
commented on the negative and unhelpful effects of stigmatising
language (Alberta Mental Health Board; Sommer-Rotenberg,
1998; Maple et al., 2010).
For example, this comment was posted in response to a
resource on suicide and language provided by the Canadian
Centre for Suicide Prevention (http://suicideinfo.ca/).
I have always believed language is very powerful, no matter
the subject. As a person who has had a number of suicide
attempts, I believe the continuing stigma surrounding suicide
will make it very difficult to change the language. Consider
successful suicide and failed suicide attempts, terms used
regularly in ER's and Mental Health Units. The successful
suicide means you're dead. Would anyone consider referring
to any other way in which a person died as 'successful'?
My 'failed attempts' have, when receiving medical attention,
made me feel like just that, a failure. I could not even do that
right, and the distaste of ER staff is often completely obvious.
Once when I drove my car off the road, in ER the nurse asked
me if I had taken my seat belt off, when I replied no, she rolled
her eyes and shook her head. My 'failed suicide' attempt
made me a person not to be taken seriously. The unspoken
message seemed to be come back when you get it right. Yes,
language is very powerful, and I believe those who would try
to address the stigma of suicide through language changes
have a very difficult job ahead.
As health professionals, our goal must be to reduce the taboo
and stigma surrounding suicide. To do so, we must update
our language. We must stop using words or phrases such as,
‘committed suicide’, ‘completed suicide’, ‘successful suicide’
or ‘failed attempt at suicide’ and be thoughtful in the ways in
which we engage with those who experience suicidal behaviour
or attempts, or are bereaved through a suicide death. This is
not the first time such consideration has been proposed. In a
review of terminology, Silverman (2006) suggested that the term
‘completed suicide’ should be avoided because it implies the
success of an undesired outcome, and ‘committed suicide’ should
also be avoided because of the connotations of illegality, crime
and dishonour, thus stigmatising the deceased as well as those
bereaved by the death.
By Susan Beaton MAPS, beyondblue Suicide Prevention Advisor, Dr Peter Forster MAPS,
University of Worcester and Dr Myfanwy Maple MAASW, University of New England
FEBRUARY 2013 31
By limiting the use of this negatively associated language,
and instead using language that accurately and sensitively
describes experience, such as, ‘died by suicide’, or ‘ended his/
her life’, we promote a
healthier way in which to open
conversation about risk and
resilience, as well as assisting
those bereaved by suicide.
‘Suicide’ is both a noun and a
verb so it is also acceptable to
say, for example, “she suicided
last year”. Language takes
time to change. As health
professionals we should be at the forefront of championing this
change. This both shows respect in caring for people affected by
suicide, as well as being accurate in relation to their experience.
Terminology within the suicide field
It could be assumed that authors writing in the suicide field
would be most likely to be using up-to-date language when
referring to suicide, so to investigate this we reviewed the
terminology of authors in peer-reviewed journals in the field
of suicidology. We chose the most recent issue (at the time of
writing) of two journals, Crisis and Suicide and Life-Threatening
Behavior (SLTB), and counted the number of times the words
‘commit’, ‘committed’ or ‘committing’ appeared in association
with the word ‘suicide’. These words appeared five times in the
most recent issue of Crisis and four times in the SLTB journal. Four
of these incidences (two from each issue) were quotations from
other sources, while the remaining five were the words of the
authors themselves.
While accepting that the field of suicidology has had
problems with terminology that has sometimes led to confusion
or conflicting use of terms (see, for example, Silverman, Berman,
Sanddal, O’Carroll, & Joiner, 2007a & 2007b), this is an area in
which stigma has potentially tragic consequences. Therefore,
the extra effort involved in becoming familiar with language
that is both precise and non-stigmatising is essential. There are
other problematic terms used in the field of suicidology which
also need to be addressed to improve clarity and consistency of
meaning (e.g., suicide attempt, non-suicidal self-harm, suicide
survivor and others), but ‘commit’ stands out because of its
potential for inducing stigma and so it deserves particular
attention with the aim of
eradicating its use.
Suicide is a cause of
death. Do we ever say that
someone ‘committed cancer’
or ‘committed heart failure’,
even when they may have lived
lifestyles that contributed to
such diseases (for example,
smoking or having a high fat
diet)? Even suggesting this sounds ludicrous, and yet every day
we see such examples in relation to suicide. So, let us commit to
being vigilant and challenge the use of stigmatising language
whenever we hear it used in connection with suicide. n
Acknowledgement
Thanks to Emma Ticehurst for her help in preparing this article.
The principal author can be contacted at
susan.beaton@bigpond.com
References
Alberta Mental Health Board. (n.d). What’s in a word? The language of
suicide. Retrieved from http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/
MentalHealthWellness/hi-mhw-sps-language-of-suicide-1p.pdf
Cholbi, M. (2009). Suicide. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/
entries/suicide/
Crimes Act 1958. Retrieved from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/
consol_act/ca195882/s6a.html
Maple, M., Edwards, H., Plummer, D. & Minichiello, V. (2010). Silenced Voices:
Hearing the stories of parents bereaved through the suicide death of
a young adult child. Health and Social Care in the Community, 18(3),
241-248.
Olsen, R. (2011). Suicide and Language. Centre for Suicide Prevention, Calgary,
Canada. Retrieved from http://suicideinfo.ca/Library/Resources/
IEInfoExchange/IE3InfoExchangeSuicideLanguage.asp
Silverman, M. M. (2006). The language of suicidality. Suicide and Life-
Threatening Behavior, 36(5), 519-532.
Silverman, M. M., Berman, A. L., Sanddal, N. D., O’Carroll, P. W., & Joiner, T. E.
(2007a). Rebuilding the Tower of Babel: A revised nomenclature for the
study of suicide and suicidal behaviors. Part 1: Background, rationale
and methodology. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 37(3), 248-263.
Silverman, M. M., Berman, A. L., Sanddal, N. D., O’Carroll, P. W., & Joiner, T. E.
(2007b). Rebuilding the Tower of Babel: A revised nomenclature for the
study of suicide and suicidal behaviors. Part 2: Suicide-related ideations,
communications and behaviors. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior,
37(3), 264-277.
Sommer-Rotenberg, D. (1998). Suicide and Language. Canadian Medical
Association Journal, 159(3), 239-40.
Suicide Act 1961. Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/9-
10/60
As health professionals, our goal
must be to reduce the taboo and
stigma surrounding suicide. To do
so, we must update our language.
TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE
Stigmatising terminology Appropriate terminology
Committed suicide
Successful suicide
Completed suicide
Failed attempt at suicide
Unsuccessful suicide
Died by suicide
Suicided
Ended his/her life
Took his/her own life
Non-fatal attempt at suicide
Attempt to end his/her life
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
The current paper reports findings from a qualitative research project that aimed to explore parents' experiences following the suicide death of their young adult child. Twenty-two Australian parents told of the suicide death of their son or daughter during the data collection period (2003 to late 2004). One narrative theme drawn from the interview data is reported here: the way in which suicide-bereaved parents feel unable to talk about their child's life and death, their experience of suicide and their resultant bereavement. Parents reported being silenced by others and silencing themselves in relation to talking about their bereavement. Parents' private stories are used to explain the difficulties they faced given the contemporary social and cultural context of grief and suicide. Then follows an examination of the impact these difficulties had on their ongoing grief narrative and availability of social support. Implications for health and social care intervention are presented to assist in better preparing support workers in their interactions with parents bereaved in this manner.
Article
A revised and refined version of the O'Carroll et al. (1996) nomenclature for suicidology is presented, with a focus on suicide-related ideations, communications, and behaviors. The hope is that this refinement will result in the development of operational definitions and field testing of this nomenclature in clinical and research settings. This revision would not have been possible without the international collaboration and dialogue addressing the nomenclature of suicidology since the O'Carroll et al. nomenclature appeared in 1996.Although it is doubtful that we will ever be able to construct universally unambiguous criteria to comprehensively characterize suicidal behaviors (and, overall, firmly establish the intention behind them), for scientific clarity it would be highly desirable that the set of definitions and the associated terminology be explicit and generalizable.De Leo, Burgis, Bertolote, Kerkhof, & Bille-Brahe, 2006, p. 5)
Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga
Suicide Act 1961. Retrieved from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Eliz2/9- 10/60
Suicide The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • M Cholbi
Cholbi, M. (2009). Suicide. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/ entries/suicide/ Crimes Act 1958. Retrieved from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/ consol_act/ca195882/s6a.html
Suicide and Language. Centre for Suicide Prevention Retrieved from http The language of suicidality
  • R Olsen
Olsen, R. (2011). Suicide and Language. Centre for Suicide Prevention, Calgary, Canada. Retrieved from http://suicideinfo.ca/Library/Resources/ IEInfoExchange/IE3InfoExchangeSuicideLanguage.asp Silverman, M. M. (2006). The language of suicidality. Suicide and Life- Threatening Behavior, 36(5), 519-532.
What's in a word? The language of suicide. Retrieved from http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/ MentalHealthWellness/hi-mhw-sps-language-of-suicide-1p
  • Alberta Mental
  • Health Board
Alberta Mental Health Board. (n.d). What's in a word? The language of suicide. Retrieved from http://www.albertahealthservices.ca/ MentalHealthWellness/hi-mhw-sps-language-of-suicide-1p.pdf