If you are in distress, you can text 988 at any time. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

The shift away from saying “committing suicide” goes beyond semantics.

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Outdated language has a way of sneaking up on you.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 This outdated expression, linking suicide with illegality or moral failing, can make it harder for others to seek help, or for families to recover.”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.

Talking Illustration

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 So outdated language can further complicate the grieving process by adding undue stigma.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 horizon
By 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?

  • It may not be obvious that someone is thinking about suicide. Learning the warning signs can be helpful for knowing how and when to offer appropriate support.
  • Asking someone if they are contemplating suicide will not make it more likely. In fact, showing concern can be a helpful way to establish social connection and promote hope in the moment.
  • Removing or limiting access to things like firearms and prescription medications is often enough to prevent suicide. This kind of means restriction is effective in preventing suicide, as many people won’t seek out alternatives.

Resources
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. 

Author: is a writer at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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