The Importance of Language

William Shakespeare, in his timeless play Romeo and Juliet, famously wrote “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare & Durband, 1985). It’s a romantic line meant to signify the forbidden love of star-crossed lovers who are banished from being together due to their family names. Although I appreciate the gesture, I think that our friend Billy had it wrong here. Let me explain…

Language matters, words matter, labels matter.

In this postinternet society, in which there is a fierce stronghold on freedom of speech in the steadfast fight against political correctness, advocating for this cause feels almost controversial. But I believe that it’s important. And for those that struggle with saying the “right” thing, avoiding contentious topics like colloquial landmines, I can understand your difficulties… to an extent. We all make mistakes, and none of us are perfect. However, in my professional (and personal) experience with oppressed and marginalized people that fall all over the human spectrum, questions asked with genuine curiosity, respect and open-mindedness are often well-received. It is the taken-for-granted assumptions that stem from ignorance and derogatory stereotypes that cause harm.

A number of problematic terms have (thankfully) been eradicated from most of our vocabularies and popular media thanks to the work of folks dedicated to this initiative (like the LGBTQ community and the Special Olympics, for example). That being said, I’m often surprised to see a lack of awareness in discussions regarding suicide, even among those in the helping profession. Some ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous phrases from well-meaning people are actually very harmful and stigmatizing to those affected by suicide.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadians ages 10-24 after motor vehicle accidents (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2017). Unfortunately, many friends and family are unaware of the extent of their loved one’s pain until it is too late. The persistent shame and stigma regarding suicidal thoughts (also known as suicidal ideation) prevent many people from coming forward and asking for help. Using terminology that is non-judgmental and non-stigmatizing when referring to suicide is one way to let those around you know that you are supportive and receptive to these difficult conversations. As a former crisis line responder, I can attest to this statement.

“Committed Suicide”

The word suicide comes from the Latin words “sui” (of oneself) and “caedere” (kill) (Oxford University Press, 2017). The use of the value-laden verb “commit” in association with suicide originated in religious and legal domains, back when it was a crime or moral dishonor to kill oneself (Sommer-Rotenberg, 1998). Although it is no longer “illegal” to die by suicide, this term still carries significant negative connotations that perpetuate stigma and further alienate suicidal individuals. Suicide is a cause of death much like any other, and is one of several tragic consequences that may follow severe and chronic depressive illness (Sommer-Rotenberg, 1998). As Beaton and colleagues (2013) note, “Do we ever say that someone ‘committed cancer’ or ‘committed heart failure’, even when they may have lived lifestyles that contributed to such diseases (for example, smoking or having a high fat diet)? Even suggesting this sounds ludicrous, and yet every day we see such examples in relation to suicide.”

“Successful” or “Failed” Suicide

“Successful” or “completed” suicides are also stigmatizing terms for this community. These adjectives do not accurately reflect the reality of people’s experiences and imply victory for an undesirable outcome (Silverman, 2006). Similarly, using “failed suicide attempt” to describe that which does not end in death is also problematic. This language is often perceived by suicidal folks as yet another thing that they are not able to get “right”. Not only does it suggest an inadequacy of some sort, but it typically represents an unconfirmed assumption based on the clinician’s subjective assessment of behaviour (Silverman, 2006). In other words, deliberate self-harm without suicidal intent is often incorrectly categorized as a “failed” attempt.

Suicide as “Selfish”

A deeply entrenched belief held by some is that suicide is a selfish act, that those who end their own life are simply “passing their pain onto others”. This is, of course, a blatant misrepresentation that minimizes a suicidal person’s experience. The disconnect here seems to be driven by a lack of understanding of the complex, nuanced picture that precedes suicide. Suicide is not one final, isolated act; it’s a process. The decision to end one’s own life is not made haphazardly or easily, and certainly not without the consideration of others. Suicide is seen as the only remaining option to end their long-standing emotional pain and suffering.

People do not die from suicide, they die from sadness.” – Timothy Long

Susan Beaton, a Suicide Prevention Advisor from beyondblue, developed a handy table to assist us with replacing problematic terminology in everyday conversations (Beaton, Forster, & Maple, 2013):

TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE
Stigmatizing terminology Appropriate terminology
Committed suicide Died by suicide
Successful suicide Suicided
Completed suicide Ended his/her life

Took his/her own life

Failed attempt at suicide Non-fatal attempt at suicide
Unsuccessful suicide Attempt to end his/her own life

If you, or someone you know, is thinking about suicide, there is help.

Toronto Distress Centres: 416-408 HELP (4357) or 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

 

References

Beaton, S., Forster, P. & Maple, M. (2013). Suicide and language: Why we shouldn’t use the ‘C’ word. InPsych, 35(1).

Canadian Mental Health Association. (2017). Suicide and youth. Retrieved from http://toronto.cmha.ca/mental_health/youth-and-suicide/#.WWAfKdPyuRs.

Oxford University Press. (2017). Suicide. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/suicide.

Shakespeare, W., & Durband, A. (1985). Romeo and Juliet. Woodbury, N.Y: Barron’s.

Silverman, M. M. (2006). The language of suicidology. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 36(5), 519-532.

Sommer-Rotenberg, D. (1998). Suicide and language. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 159, 239-240.

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