By Andrew Malekoff
Words matter. Today, this is no more evident than in the incendiary rhetoric spoken – and tweeted – that has contributed to American citizens being pitted against one another.
There is a growing sentiment that the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue that took the lives of 11 congregants was fueled by hate speech that ignited the shooter’s growing rage.
Although that subject is being abundantly covered in the media, it is the words associated with another kind of shocking death that I wish to draw attention to here.
When someone takes their life, they are most frequently reported to have “committed suicide.” Commit is a word that connotes a criminal act. Yet, suicide is not a crime.
Desiree Woodland, a mom who lost her son to suicide shared her experience in a National Alliance on Mental Illness publication. “My son did not commit a crime. He believed the only way to end the unbearable pain was to end his life. He died because he didn’t have the words to express the deep psychological/biological turmoil he was experiencing.”
If not a crime, is suicide an immoral, depraved or sinful act? It isn’t if it is the consequence of mental illness, unbearable stress, or trauma.
Nonetheless, family members who are survivors of suicide loss report the experience of others speaking in hushed tones around them. Some people refer to suicide as a selfish act, the result of poor parenting, a deficit in the family or all of the above.
At the same time that there is a growing demand to tone down divisive and hateful rhetoric in order to prevent interpersonal violence, there needs to be discussion about mental illness and suicide.
According to Denver psychotherapist Dr. Stacy Freedenthall, “If changing our language can help suicidal people to feel safer asking for help, then changing language can save lives.”
In academic journals there appears to be an inclination to use the term “completed suicide.” However, committed and completed are terms that advance the stigma and shame related to suicide and should be avoided.
Increasingly there is preference to the expression “died by suicide,” which avoids the judgmental undertone of “committed suicide.”
Perhaps a contributor to The Mighty, a digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities, said it best: “By shifting our language around suicide, we have the power to reduce some of the massive shame carried by survivors of suicide. If you feel scared or helpless about what to say to someone who’s lost someone to suicide, take comfort in knowing that, by changing your language about suicide, you’re offering an act of kindness.”