When you commit something, it implies that you commit a crime. Legally, to commit means “to send a person to prison…for the commission of a crime, offense or misdemeanor, or for a contempt.” So when we say someone “commits suicide,” we’re implying that their taking their own life is a crime.
Suicide is not a crime — not in modern America. We need to stop saying “commit suicide” to stop treating it as such. No matter how morally or religiously opposed to suicide you might be, it’s not right to call it a crime, and stigmatizing suicide dehumanizes the people we know that have died by suicide as if they deserved what they did, as if people struggling with suicidal thoughts are bad people to be having those thoughts.
The term is outdated and insensitive, but even now, the most common phrase I hear when someone has taken their lives is that they “committed suicide”. Lord knows how long the term has been used, but as far as I know, it was used in antiquity. The Council of Arles said in 452 A.D. that “if a slave commits suicide, no reproach shall fall upon his master.”
But I understand why suicide is so uncomfortable to talk about. After all, it brings a lot of intense emotions to the surface and a lot of fear — and the only reason I know saying “commit suicide” is wrong is because I have worked on a variety of suicide hotlines, whether through the phone or through text. My advisors and supervisors, all of whom were professionals as social workers or clinical psychologists, all strongly advised against saying “commit suicide” because of its insinuation as a stigmatized crime, and instead urged us to use more direct language like “kill yourself, “die by suicide” or “took his/her life”.
At the time, however, I felt conflicted. How was “kill yourself,” any better of a term, and how was it any less stigmatizing? But I came around to realize that direct language makes sure you and the person you’re talking to are on the same page.
I thought for a long time that talking about suicide makes people more suicidal, that maybe stigma around suicide made people want to take their lives less. “Some fear that merely raising the…