The C-word

Please stop using the ‘c-word’

No, not that c-word. The word ‘commit’. In relation to suicide.

Consider the phrase “commit suicide”. Does this seem unusual? Acceptable? Familiar?

We could argue that there is nothing all that alarming about the words themselves. They are a pretty standard and common description of a tragic act. In any case, it’s such a common and widely accepted descriptor that we could almost expect to see a hyphen (one of these ‘-‘ things) between the words, if it were grammatically correct to do so. We could be wondering if it’s even worth considering question the phrase, and instead just dismissing the question. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the act of suicide itself, not the triviality of a particular verb or adjective?

Over time, the phrase has become so entrenched in our collective vocabulary that is has an apparent naturalness, implying harmlessness. This harmlessness is pretty deceptive though. Like so much of the language we use, there are underlying negative connotations to this phrase. This one is particularly repugnant.

The word ‘commit’ has a number of significant implications when associated with the word ‘suicide’:

  1. The word ‘commit’ is commonly used in connection with religious offences. Indeed suicide is considered wrong in many religions. Over time suicide has been regarded as a cardinal sin in some religions and is still often considered a moral sin.
  2. In the past, suicide was a criminal act in many countries. For example, there was a legal prohibition against suicide in England and Wales until the Suicide Act 1961 was introduced. As well as decriminalising suicide, this Act made it an offence to assist in a suicide, which had the unique effect of criminalising an accessory when the principal has not committed a crime. The law relating to suicide in Australia varies between States and Territories, but it is no longer a crime in any jurisdiction. In the State of Victoria for example, the Crimes Act 1958, Section 6A, states “The rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit or to attempt to commit suicide is hereby abrogated” (Crimes Act, 1958).
  3. The word 'commit' has been applied to the incarceration of people against their will in a mental institution. In many countries care for those with mental illness can be sought involuntarily (usually when the person is so unwell that they are unable to admit themselves to care). This is often the only occurrence, outside of committing a crime and being held, where an individual can be detained without his or her consent.

As a result, to “commit” suicide has criminal overtones which refer to a past time when it was illegal to kill oneself. Committing suicide was akin to committing murder or rape; linguistically, therefore, they are still linked. The original notoriety of the word may have dulled over time but the underlying residue remains.

Suicide is a cause of death. Of interesting note, I’ve never noticed or heard of someone “committing” another form of legal death. 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.

Making some small changes to how we speak about suicide, is not my own original thought. The impetus to alter the language of suicide began ostensibly in the bereavement community. In addition to the insensitive language used to describe suicide, silence and denial - the absence of suicide language and conversation - was targeted as a major contributor to the stigma around the subject.

“When a tragedy is not spoken of openly there can be no true sympathy, sharing or healing,” “Suicide leaves the bereaved with especially acute feelings of self-denigration and self-recrimination” (Sommer - Rottenburg, p.240).

Those who are left behind feel the full burden of suicide’s stigma, and others often steer clear of suicide survivors to avoid the “contamination” of suicide association. The bereaved can feel abandoned and ashamed, and adding to this injury is the mention of suicide in euphemistic, obituary-type language that goes to great lengths to whitewash any moral stain there might be to a particular death. Because this silence can be debilitating, the need for language that addresses the act of suicide in a direct but respectful way was identified and has, in recent years, gathered momentum.

I know I bang a lot about language and words. I am aware that policing language is not the most popular sport and rarely an easy activity. But I do it because language is powerful. Making small adjustments to our language alone, will only deal with stigma on a superficial level, however if we consider our context, intention and audience when we’re conversing with others the level of responsibility shifts. Sometimes, political correctness can be good, especially when it helps, in whatever ways possible, vulnerable people and those who love them.

Suicide is a massive public health issue throughout the community and those affected (either personally, or due to the death of a loved one) are vulnerable and often stigmatised. To overcome this health issue we need to talk more about the issue. However, such talk is often steeped in concepts and language from the past that perpetuate stigma, constrain thinking and reduce help-seeking behaviour. With this knowledge, am I still going to use language that stigmatises and increases feelings of shame in people who might be experiencing excruciating psychological distress? No. Can I still be frank and polite? I reckon.  And am I going to ask others to do the same? I think I just did.

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