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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health
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This article is part of the Catalyst series called Language Matters.
Outdated language has a way of sneaking up on you. Sometimes it’s egregious — like a racial slur, for instance. Other times, it’s more subtle — like an expression you suddenly realize you haven’t heard for a while. For many people, the language around suicide is likely to fall into the second category.
Until a few years ago, it was common to hear that someone “committed” suicide after taking their life. The expression was pervasive across all forms of media and in everyday conversation. Then, the paradigm started to shift. More and more people, from health-care workers to journalists to people with lived and living experience of mental illness, adopted “died by suicide” as the better alternative.
What’s the difference?The third edition of the Mindset media guide for reporting on mental health offers one of the best rationales behind the change: “Don’t say a person ‘committed suicide.’ This outdated expression, linking suicide with illegality or moral failing, can make it harder for others to seek help, or for families to recover.”
The term “commit” is most often associated with some sort of crime. For example, we still regularly hear that someone “committed murder” following a homicide, or “committed fraud” after a scam. These expressions imply a disregard for the rules of law and moral or ethical standards while casting judgment on the actions taken.
When talking about a suicide, such implications have no place. Suicide is preventable with the right interventions. But if admitting thoughts of suicide feels like confessing a crime, it’s not hard to imagine why someone might hesitate to reach out for support. When you factor in the feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness that often accompany suicidal ideation, the stakes involved in the language we choose are raised even higher.
Then there are those left behind. Following a suicide, it’s estimated that 135 people are affected by the loss, with 7 to 10 being significantly impacted. So outdated language can further complicate the grieving process by adding undue stigma.
By contrast, saying or writing that someone “died by suicide” helps reframe the death as a loss rather than a crime. It’s an opportunity to replace condemnation with compassion, and swap stigma for support.
For someone struggling — with their own thoughts of suicide or the death of a loved one — that can mean the difference between staying silent and speaking up.
New hope on the horizonBy the end of 2023, Canada is set to launch a three-digit suicide prevention number. When someone dials or texts 988 from anywhere in Canada, they’ll be connected to a free mental health crisis or suicide prevention service. Experts say this nationwide number can not only reduce the stigma associated with reaching out for help, it will also save people the time it would take to remember or search for a crisis number. When it comes to preventing suicide, every second counts.
Did you know?
ResourcesIf you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911.
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