The Stigma of the Term 'Commit Suicide'
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He continued by saying, by 1962, such laws were repealed in Britain.
In Canada, attempting suicide was entered into the Criminal Code in 1892 as a criminal act, which was repealed only in 1972.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/
Barton, L. (2017, April 12). The Stigma of the Term 'Commit Suicide', HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2017/04/the-stigma-of-the-term-commit-suicide
Author: Laura A. Barton
I can identify with your feelings and experiences. I attend a support group DBSA.org . They are located on-line as well as local chapters. Meeting with others who understand has been helpful. Best of luck to you.
Very well stated, Laura. I have so much to say on this subject, but you’ve said it for me., I too, have thought about it maybe more times than I have not in the last several years. It is definitely not a cowardly or selfish act as we still and will continue to hear from those who don’t get it. I’m glad most people don’t get it, because that means they can’t possibly know how much suffering and pain and thought goes into thinking of dying by suicide.
On the other hand, more people now than ever are trying to get the help they need with their mental health, which many times takes so much courage right there to know you need it, to seek the right kind of help, then you have trial and error most times trying to get the right help, along with medication vs non, and what kind of therapy, etc., might work for you...all of that in itself is time consuming, grueling, and we find ourselves starting over many times to get the right combinations of help. A support system is dire for those of us struggling with whatever illness we’ve either been diagnosed with correctly or not. Support is VITAL to our recovery. For that support it takes learning and educating and LISTENING and HEARING your loved one, friend, sister, brother, mother, daughter, WHOMEVER, it is. It’s also a huge responsibility to not judge someone who’s dealing with a mental illness, or you’ll never “get it” to be the right kind of help for your loved one, friend, etc. I feel I know this better than most because I’ve been suffering alone for too long now, with both family and friends nearby who’ve either decided I chose this for myself (family), to be depressed, with severe anxiety, and then C-PTSD jumped on along side those diagnosis's in 2013 during several very traumatic life events that most aren’t even aware of. I feel like I should be living in times long ago when people were hidden away in institutions, etc., where family often had no choice to do with their misunderstood mentally ill children, etc.
Thank GOODNESS we’re not still in those times, but with the news of Kate Spade’s death by suicide yesterday, I’ve read and heard more jokes about it than I ever imagined still hearing about.
It made me ill to hear laughter and ridiculously hurtful jokes, about her or anyone else who may have done the same thing, as if her life or her pain and thoughts didn’t matter at all. They matter! They matter to me and this has put me in a place today where I don’t want to speak to another person who may have some snide, careless, thoughtless remark to say that I could not stomach today. I’m not Kate or anyone famous, who unfortunately gets media attention, I’m just a human being struggling everyday to hold on to nothing anymore, but I keep grabbing for a lifeline anyway.
Thank you again for pointing out the stigma attached to “committing” suicide vs dying by suicide. If we all try to educate just one or more people ourselves on this topic it can make a very big difference, I hope.
Hi Nancy. I apologize for the delayed reply, but thank you for your message! I'm glad to hear that my blog resonated with you, although I am sorry to hear that you've struggled yourself. I hope that you are or have been able to find the support you need despite those who think your mental illnesses are a choice. I didn't hear any jokes or snide comments following Kate Spade's death, but I'm not surprised that people did that. It's an unfortunate world we live in where these things are far too common. Ridicule seems to come much easier to people than compassion. :(