How Picky Should We Be About Suicide-Related Language?

Language matters when it comes to talking about suicide, particularly when in it’s mentioned in the media. Sometimes, though, I wonder if getting too nitpicky about language is counterproductive. After all, as stigma researcher Patrick Corrigan says, stigma gets attached to labels but is not a product of those labels.

On Twitter I recently came across a link to a post on the Speaking of Suicide site that talked about language around suicide, including the phrases committed suicide, completed suicide, and died by suicide. The author argued that the phrase “completed suicide” should not be used, and part of her justification was that completing something has positive connotations linked to accomplishment while incomplete has negative connotations.

The author links to the Maine Suicide Prevention Program site, which states that the phrase completed suicide perpetuates stigma and implies that the person has made a previous attempt whether or not they actually have.

I understand why a term like “commit suicide” is objectionable. Personally it doesn’t bother me all that much despite its problematic origins. I guess I think of it as kind of like the term “bandaid”. It’s used so widely that the original nature of the term fades into the background, and the meaning moves beyond the literal meaning of the words involved. I don’t imagine many people these days are making the link between committing suicide and committing a crime, aside from those countries where, sadly, it does continue to be a crime. Like I said, though, I can understand why for many that wording is considered unacceptable, so it’s not a phrase I use myself.

The Speaking of Suicide article caught my attention in large part because I do use the term “completed suicide”. If the word completed has positive connotations in the author’s mind, it seems to me like that’s her concern, not mine. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, synonyms of completed include: concluded, done, ended, finished, over, and terminated. Sounds about right to me. As for the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s argument that it implies a previous attempt, that seems like a fairly large leap to make. And how does it perpetuate stigma? I’m honestly not seeing the connection there.

We’re all going to have our own personal language preferences, and it seems unlikely that everyone will come to an agreement on what words to use when i comes to suicide. That’s okay, though. We don’t all have to talk about it the same way. What matters is that we speak up.

Whether we talk about someone completing suicide, dying by suicide, or whatever you want to call it, the stigma is still there. To actually chip away at the stigma we need to get busy talking openly about suicide. Nitpicking over language just turns into a distraction from the real problem; it doesn’t change the fact that people are going into emergency rooms feeling suicidal and getting turned away because sorry, they’re just not suicidal enough. So let’s focus our attention where it belongs and ease up a little on the language police.


Originally published at mentalhealthathome.org on March 21, 2019.