Talking About Suicide: Words To Use & Avoid

Warning: This article deals with the sensitive topic of suicide. If you (or someone you know) need support, call the toll-free, 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 for free, which offers 24/7 support from the Crisis Text Line.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2016 suicide became the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10–34 and the fourth leading cause for those 35–54. This issue has been highlighted by the suicide deaths of several high-profile people in recent years, like designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain, and musician Chester Bennington.

When someone dies by suicide, it’s typical to hear the phrase committed suicide. Recently, though, that expression has come under fire for victim-blaming and reinforcing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

So, what is the right phrase to use?

The problem with committed suicide

Suicide is the “intentional taking of one’s own life.” Evidenced in the mid-1600s, suicide is formed from the Latin sui, “of oneself,” and –cide, a combining form meaning “killing,” seen in other such words as homicide or insecticide.

Because suicide is usually seen as a deliberate act, many feel that it’s logical to describe it as something a person commits (i.e., “does, performs, perpetrates”). The issue, though, is that when we use the word commit to describe suicide, it implies that a choice was made in the same way that one might choose to commit a crime or a sin. However, those who die by suicide usually do not feel as though they have a choice.

Many who die by suicide struggle with mental illness, such as depression and anxiety. Others may be victims of trauma or facing major life stressors—such as physical or sexual abuse, homelessness, legal problems, loss of a loved one, persecution, and rejection—that make them feel as though suicide is the only way to stop their suffering. Describing someone as having committed suicide makes it sound like they perpetrated a crime on themselves, when, in reality, they were a victim.

Nonetheless, committed remains the main term used by most people and the media to describe the act of suicide. When the father of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim died in an apparent suicide in March 2019, it was widely reported that he “committed suicide.” Similar language was used when two students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting died in March. This is in spite of the fact that an alliance of prominent mental health and media organizations advise journalists against the phrase committed suicide when reporting on suicide deaths.

What should we say instead?

The recommended terminology to use when discussing suicide is died by suicide, according to Dr. Daniel J. Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. Suicide is often stigmatized as being a choice or selfish act, and saying that someone “committed suicide” can reinforce those ideas. Neutral phrasing strips away some of the blame and shame that is too often associated with these losses.

This is important not only for changing the way people talk about mental health, but also for encouraging those suffering from suicidal ideation—or thinking about, considering, or planning suicide—to be more open with their struggles and seek help. Research shows that mental health stigma indeed can play a major role in preventing people from seeking treatment.

Changing our language may not seem significant, but the way we discuss suicide and mental health issues matters more than ever. A study published in April 2019 showed that the suicide rate in boys aged 10–17 jumped significantly in the month after the 2017 debut of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a show which not only frequently discusses suicide but also depicts a teen dying by suicide.

Moreover, US veterans are 22 percent more likely than non-veterans to die by suicide, over 40 percent of non-binary youth self-report that they have attempted suicide, and suicide rates are rising for many other groups across the US too.

It is essential to reach out to those who are at risk and advocate for better treatment options and increased access to mental healthcare. It is also important to do everything we can to replace the stigma surrounding suicide with a culture—and language—of honesty and support.

Replacing committed suicide to died by suicide is a small change that can have a big impact.

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