The Stigma of the Term 'Commit Suicide'
Wednesday, April 12 2017 Laura Barton
In recent years, the mental health community has been working to phase out the term “commit suicide” because of the negative connotations that are attributed to it. It really came on my radar two years ago when I attended a suicide prevention walk in St. Catharine's, Ontario and spoke with Denise Waligora, who works with the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Waligora shared with me the stigma associated with the term "commit suicide" and how it was associated with crime and sinfulness (Talk About Suicide to Erase the Shame of Talking About Suicide).
While, perhaps, that’s not the first thing that pops into most peoples' minds when they think of the term “commit suicide”, and, rather, most people see the word “commit” in terms of taking action, I think it’s important to try to see things from the other side of the argument.
A Historical Glance at 'Commiting' Suicide
The idea of suicide hasn’t been static over time. From a nonchalant sort of attitude towards it, to thinking it upset some sort of spiritual balance, to thinking it robbed society of a contributing member, and, of course, to religious connotations, suicide has changed.
Robert E. Litman, M.D. wrote in the Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide in 1966 (1) about the legal ramifications of suicide. He wrote that for centuries, English law deemed suicide a “special crime” and would punish those who “committed” suicide by mutilating their bodies, putting sanctions on the person’s burial, seizing their property, and condemning the surviving family.
He continued by saying, by 1962, such laws were repealed in Britain.
In Canada, attempting suicide was entered into the Criminal Code in 1892 as a criminal act, which was repealed only in 1972. In the United States, suicide was considered a felony in most states until around the 1990s, although there are still some states in which it is apparently a “common law crime.” (2)
The Introduction of the Term 'Die by Suicide' Instead of 'Commit Suicide'
The term "die by suicide", and other variants, have been introduced to counteract that criminal essence from the act and to try to change the way people think about suicide. I read a comment recently from someone saying changing the term was a way of dodging responsibility for those who do die by suicide, but I strongly disagree with that.
As someone who has experienced suicidal ideation and had a plan to end her life, I know responsibility is one of the weightiest parts of dealing with these thoughts. We are fully aware we are taking our own lives and understand there will be repercussions once we are gone, but our thinking is warped so we believe that it will all work out for the better in the end anyway.
Changing the term isn’t about dodging responsibility, it’s about making an effort to understand what a person is going through and how one gets to that point. It’s about shedding old views and stigma-fueled ideas of what it means for someone to die by suicide.
(1) Litman, R. E., M.D. (1966-1967). "Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide" [Abstract]. Medical-Legal Aspects of Suicide, 395. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://heinonline.org/
(2) Suicide legislation. (2017, April 09). Retrieved April 12, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/