There’s little doubt that language — the words we use and how we use them — has a profound influence on culture. Over time, some words even burrow so deeply into our collective mindset that they change the way we think.
As Antonio Benítez-Burraco writes in Psychology Today, “Languages do not limit our ability to perceive the world or to think about the world, but they focus our perception, attention, and thought on specific aspects of the world.”
Different words spoken in different languages don’t just dress the same concept. They shape and often redefine that concept — imparting meaning as much as they describe it.
When it comes to language, we’ve got a lot wrapped up in the wrapping, particularly when it comes to very sensitive concepts like the taking of one’s own life.
To describe that act, we’re still using the term “committed suicide.”
And while the words may sound cold and clinical, they are, in fact, anything but sterile.
They’re loaded with meaning — in the worst possible way. Think about things that are “committed”: fraud, adultery, murder, sin.
In our society, when something is committed, that something by default is a bad thing. (When was the last time you heard about two people falling in love and “committing marriage?”)
Suicide, while inarguably a bad thing, is a lot more complex than tax evasion. It’s more like life evasion. Or at least, the need to escape from overwhelming stress and trauma. It’s often inextricably entwined with mental health.
So why heap more scorn on people battling those devastating issues? Why frame suicide as an immoral act?
“The term ‘committed suicide’ is damaging because for many, if not most, people it evokes associations with ‘committed a crime’ or ‘committed a sin’ and makes us think about something morally reprehensible or illegal,” Jacek Debiec, a professor at the University of Michigan’s department of psychiatry, tells the Huffington Post.
There are alternatives. Mental health professional suggest skirting the stigma-fraught word “committed” entirely. Some lean towards the term “completed suicide,” although that seems to introduce another wholly unwelcome meaning.
“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,” writes University of Denver professor Stacey Freedenthal.
“Completion is good, and suicide isn’t.”
Indeed, that may swing the pendulum too hard in the destigmatizing direction. Freedenthal, like many mental health experts, suggests simply getting rid of the troublesome “committed” and simply saying “killed by suicide.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? And yet, we’re still largely stuck on that victim-blaming classic: committed suicide.
The irony here? We all agree that mental health is something that improves when we talk about it. But the acme of mental distress — suicide — is so steeped in immorality and even criminality, who dares talk about it?
And maybe that’s why the suicide rate is surging. It’s the affliction that dare not speak its name — even as we need to talk about it now, more than ever. In the U.S., suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2016, claiming some 45,000 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More alarmingly, suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.
But suicide may also be the only major disease that’s entirely preventable. Communication can be a powerful vaccine.
“Suicide is not a sin and is no longer a crime, so we should stop saying that people ‘commit’ suicide,” concluded researcher Susan Beaton in a 2013 paper. “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.”
So maybe it’s time we stopped stigmatizing the act, and, by doing so, encouraged the kinds of conversations that save lives.
No one is perpetrating a crime here. The only crime, in fact, is that we’re still using language to cast it as one.
If you’re struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide, there is help. For a list of phone numbers and resources across the U.S., visit the U.S. National Suicide & Crisis Hotlines webpage.