The Christmas period gives many of us the chance to take a small step back and catch up with family and friends (maybe virtually this year). It’s a time to talk to family about how they’re doing and what they’ve been up to. A lot of times family ask me about how Community Crisis Response Team is doing and how the work is going. Usually this is followed by a conversation rooted in remembering people that we have all known who have died by suicide and sometimes the word “commit” sneaks in.
Talking about suicide is so important but it’s even more important that when we talk about suicide we do it or try to do it responsibly. I’m not saying that people who use the “wrong” language or the “incorrect” words are bad people. I’m saying that people cannot perform CPR until they learn how to perform CPR. There’s no way we can correct ourselves if we had no idea we needed to correct ourselves.
You can never know who among your friends and family might someday need support so it’s really important that you use the right language. Language that encourages help-seeking or lets people know that you are a safe person to talk things through with.
The past and the present
When you think about the word “commit” and how it’s usually used, you might notice that we tend to use it negatively. We commit crimes and people commit sins (depending on whatever beliefs you have or subscribe to).
Suicide was both a sin and a crime in Ireland as well as in many other parts of the world up to fairly recently. Thankfully the powers that be eventually caught up with the times, mostly through the hard work of advocates and activists and this is no longer the case. Unfortunately though, when we as a society shook off the harmful and stigmatizing beliefs we forgot to discard some of the language attached to those beliefs. Using the word “commit” when it comes to suicide is an example of this.
What we say can cause assumptions about how we think
When we talk about suicide and we use words like “commit” we should be conscious of who might be listening. If people think that someone speaks negatively about suicide or that someone might judge them for feeling suicidal, chances are they will not open up to that person – an intervention opportunity lost.
Similarly, think of how many times you’ve heard the phrase “you’re not thinking of doing something stupid are you?” in movies or TV shows in relation to suicide. If you strip it back and look at the language or phrasing for what it is, what those characters could also be saying is
- Suicide is stupid
- People who think about suicide are stupid
- I’m not comfortable saying the word suicide so I’m probably not comfortable talking about it either
Ultimately what these characters could be communicating is – “I’m not a safe person to have this conversation with”. I don’t think people could be blamed for drawing conclusions or making assumptions about how we feel by what we say and how we say it. We can work on trying not to make assumptions but at the end of the day we are human and it is one of the things we do automatically.
Talking responsibly about suicide
It’s always hard to learn a new habit or to unlearn an old habit and we all stumble and make mistakes. One thing I believe though is that not correcting ourselves when we make a mistake is far worse than making a mistake. One of the lovely things about being human is that we can be forgiven for making mistakes because it is part of who we are. One of the even nicer things about being human is that we have the ability to practice self-awareness and that we can recognize and correct mistakes.
Being conscious and aware of how we talk about suicide can open doors to conversation for people who might be struggling. We can’t get it right every time but we can circle back and correct ourselves when we need to.
Instead of saying “committed suicide” we can use “died by suicide”. Instead of saying “you’re not thinking of doing something stupid are you?” we can say “are you thinking about suicide?”. These things may seem small but we know that in terms of the bigger picture, it is most often the small steps that make huge differences.
Happy new year!