Not long ago, I spoke at a wellness event in Missoula Montana. The audience was primarily bar association executives. Prior to the talk, I chatted with someone about a family tragedy she had experienced, having lost someone close to her to suicide. I, of course, preach for discussing such things with the proper, non-stigmatizing language but, it still came out. I said,
“When he committed suicide”
The gaffe was like going to say hello to someone but as the words come out, realizing that you don’t know the person. You try to pull them back, but they have passed the lips of no return into the history of uncomfortable life moments.
I apologized profusely. She was forgiving. Our discussion continued on. She has probably forgotten those two seconds of her life. They are etched in my consciousness. An embarrassing, learning moment. A reminder that I am human and make mistakes. We all do. Even the New York Times, when they report on such events.
As an example, look no further than the reported death of now deceased, sexual predator, Jeffery Epstein. Below are three headlines regarding the event.
The irony here is that TMZ got it right. The Times, not so much. The Miami Herald takes the shame and stigmatizing portrayal of suicide to a level I have frankly never seen from a respected major news publication. I get that there are personalities involved given the author’s previous reporting on the matter. I also get that the infamy of the deceased makes such headlines flow from the lips without much thought.
It, however, does not matter. Media and advocates must give thought to how such language plays into the larger picture. How the media portrays suicide should NEVER hinge on personalities or whether we like or dislike the person who has died. When that happens, stigma becomes a popularity contest. Is it a parent who leaves a family? Who you don’t like? Who I don’t like? Emotions can always take us to the pre-determined result we want to reach. Media in its reporting should not make such distinctions unless it’s going in the op-ed section.
It’s simple. When discussing suicide in the media, “committed suicide” is generally agreed upon by advocates and treatment professionals as a harmful and stigmatizing way of describing the act.
Here is the primary reason we should use “died by suicide” instead of “committed suicide.”
The term, “committed” carries a historical implication that suicide is a crime or a “sin.” Religious arguments aside, this takes it out of the mental health conversation and into a moral one. On the morality playing field, it can have the effect of stigmatizing and shaming those who have suicidal ideation. This can have the effect of discouraging a struggling person from seeking support.
So why “died by suicide” instead? There is no morality or judgment embedded in the term. It is a simple description of an event.
What about “completed suicide?”. Some notable awareness advocates prefer this term. I don’t. Here is why. “Completed’ has a general positive overtone. Completing a suicide is not positive.
The AP Style guide instructs not to use the term “committed suicide.” They provide other alternatives that are fine if for some reason, “died by suicide” does not work within your framework
A review of the overall general reporting on the Epstein death is positive in terms of mental health language. The vast majority of stories I looked at, use the correct terminology. The Times did not. The Herald is beyond the pale. We should all try harder to change the language of suicide. It matters. We don’t want to shame people into suffering in silence. The more people that talk openly about it, the more lives that can be diverted into a positive mental health trajectory. Language matters.