The language of suicide – time to pause and think?

In a recent open letter, campaigners have urged the media to lead the way in using sensitive language when it comes to talking about suicidal behaviour. A similar request has been put forward to researchers and health professionals. There have been several phrases that have been suggested to be unhelpful (primarily from anecdotal accounts from people with lived experience), but the phrase that has gained the most disapproval is “commit suicide”.

You might be asking yourself, “what is the big deal?”. I certainly did when I first started writing about suicide and was consistently corrected. After all commit is a verb indicating that a person was determined to carry out a certain course of action. Yet I soon realised the most common use of the verb commit is in relation to someone committing a crime or an immoral act. People don’t “commit suicide” (i.e. a crime). Suicide has been decriminalised in the majority of countries worldwide. But this phrase has unhelpful undertones, which might further stigmatise this behaviour. With this understanding I’ve been in support of any drive to encourage more appropriate language use, and with the help of my colleagues have been actively encouraging academic journals and conference organisers to dissuade professionals using this language.

As professionals we don’t want to further stigmatise suicide, and as language matters we should be trying to help reduce the associated stigma. Stigma, we know, is a barrier for accessing health care, so in my opinion any effort to reduce stigma should be pursued. Some argue, however, that our push to move away from the term “commit suicide” is over simplistic, and that changing language does not change reality. The evidence being quoted here is weak, and in my view the question remains, does changing our language help? Does it reduce stigma? We simply don’t know. But a small change may help. Getting people to question their language brings into their consciousness the importance of the words they use, and the impact their words might have on others.

An argument has however been made for not moving away from the term “commit suicide”. Perhaps the alternative phrases (i.e. “die by suicide”) remove a person’s agency. I can see this argument, and I know that some use the term “commit suicide” without any understanding of implications of criminality. Take me for example, I certainly didn’t know about the link. But once I did, there was no going back. A friend of mine died by suicide in 2016, and for me reading about him “committing suicide” in the media felt wrong.

For professionals there are two things to consider. The language used to talk to an individual regarding an experience (in this case related to suicide) should be guided by the language that the person feels comfortable using. This should be assessed on a case by case basis. However, when talking to the public about suicide, professionals should use the language that is most acceptable to the greatest number of people. But here is where we stumble. At present we don’t know what phrase the majority of people with a lived experience of suicide find the most sensitive and appropriate. There simply is no empirical evidence to guide us. So perhaps, this is the time to push the pause button on the current drive for us to drop the term “commit suicide”.

As a researcher, evidence-based decision-making is important to me. With the help of fellow colleagues at the University of Bristol, University of Nottingham and the Samaritans, we launched an anonymous online survey for those who have experience of suicide. We hope that this evidence will help inform the debate and plan to release the results of this survey as soon as possible. A copy of the report will be hosted on this website, so stay tuned!

Dee Knipe is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Population Health Science, University of Bristol. She is an an epidemiologist with a special interest in suicide and self-harm in low and middle income countries.

You can follow @dee_knipe (group account @SASHBristol ) on Twitter.

If you or anyone you know is affected by the issues covered in this blog, you can contact the Samaritans for free from any telephone on 116 123 in the UK. Alternatively you can email for details of your nearest branch, where you can talk to one of their trained volunteers face to face. The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) has details of support organisations in other countries.