Changing The Language Around Suicide

I recently had the honor of addressing lawyer wellness at the law firm of Winston & Strawn.  I was telling my story and was at the part describing being suicidal in the summer of 2005.  I was about to say, “I decided to commit suicide.” I caught myself. Instead, I said, “I decided to end my life by suicide.” This might seem on the surface, to be an inconsequential distinction.  Not long after I spoke, I received an email from a lawyer who attended the event.  It in part read:

“…thank you for using the term “died by suicide” instead of “commit suicide.” 

The person went on to relate personal experience around suicide and why it meant so much that I used the language I did.

The evening after the event, I happened to read a recent article written for the ABA Journal. It is about suicide in the legal profession. An excellent article, with one exception. One of the headings is, “Why Do Lawyers Commit Suicide.”

I don’t blame the author for using the term. The conversation about how we describe suicide is not yet a mainstream discussion.  A search of articles I have written may very well reveal the use of “committed suicide.”  I continue to learn. This is simply a teaching moment.  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 a tragic event.

News reporting agencies are on board with this language. 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.

As to the ABA article, I urge them to be part of the solution on this issue.  In the future, when reviewing submissions, if the term “committed suicide,” is present, unless it is a quote to a source, ask the author to change the language.

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