When we talk about someone who died by suicide, we often say that they “committed suicide” the way they might “commit” a crime. But suicide isn’t a crime — it’s a public health problem like any other.
Deaths from suicide have a lot in common with deaths from heart attacks: they’re common, often preventable, and may be caused by underlying health problems. In the case of suicide, the underlying cause is usually mental illness. And we think you’ll agree, dear readers, that having a mental illness isn’t a crime. So why do we talk about suicide like it is?
People who have suicidal thoughts — or who have attempted suicide — already face tremendous stigma. When we criminalize suicide in our word choice, we stigmatize them even more. And when people at risk for suicide feel stigmatized by health materials, they’re less likely to find, understand, and use information about lifesaving mental health treatments.
We need to make a stronger connection between suicide and mental illness so that people can access the health services they need — no shame or blame required.
Try these tips when you write about suicide in health materials:
- Skip “committed.” Try the more neutral “died by suicide” instead.
- Go ahead and address common questions about suicide. But try not to linger on language that assigns blame, like “How could someone do this to their family?”
- When you talk about suicide, make sure you also talk about mental health treatment — and direct people to services.
The bottom line: Let’s stop treating suicide like a crime — ditch “committed suicide” and use “died by suicide” instead.
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