The Power of Words: The language of suicide

By P. Bonny Ball; adapted from AMHB “What’s in a Word: The Language of Suicide”

 “Committed suicide”, “completed suicide” or “successful suicide” have historically been used to describe a death by suicide. The suicide prevention community is now realizing that this language is not accurate nor is it helpful.

“Committed suicide,” with its implications of criminality, is a carryover from the Middle Ages, when civil authorities, finding the victim beyond their reach, punished the survivors by confiscating their property.   Victims were forbidden traditional funerals and burials, and suicide was considered both illegal and sinful by the laws and religions of the time

Today, the word “commit” presents a particular problem since it is also used for criminal offences such as homicide and assault.  Suicide is no longer a criminal act in Canada.

The term “successful” used to describe a suicide death does not reflect the reality.  Every suicide death is a tragedy, not a success.   

Initiated by the Compassionate Friends, in 2002 the CASP Board recommended using death by suicide, died by suicide, suicide or suicide death.  These terms are non-judgemental and consistent with how we describe other types of death – died from cancer, died in a car accident, and thus died by suicide.

Likewise, to describe a suicide attempt that does not result in death as a “failure,” “unsuccessful,” or “incomplete” is not helpful, nor is it accurate.  Each of these terms imply that the person who attempted suicide is a failure, when, in fact, a suicide attempt that does not result in death gives the person the opportunity to find help and hope.

The terms “non-fatal suicide attempt” or just “suicide attempt” more accurately and appropriately reflects that event.  

Changing the language used to describe suicide is not easy – old habits die hard.   But as we in the suicide prevention community work to change our language in our own work, the new language becomes more familiar.   Most others (even media) usually understand the rationale when we take the time to explain – though they do take reminding!   Change DOES come, if slowly.    

Thank you for your support.

Ref: Alberta Mental Health Health Board “What’s in a Word? The Language of Suicide; retrieved January 28, 2009