Death by suicide

There’s been an interesting shift in thinking in some groups I’m a part of, insofar as talking about suicide. I don’t mean assisted suicide or the legalisation of suicide, though those discussions are happening too. Did you know, for example, that a recent poll showed that “Majority of Scots in favour of assisted suicide”. A breakdown of the figures shows that of the 1000+ interviewed, a third were strongly in favour of assisted suicide being permitted under certain conditions, while a third were more or less in favour. Only 7% were strongly opposed, while 12% were unsure. But I digress.

The shift in thinking I’m talking about is one of language.

Until now – in English at least – we’ve used the term commit suicide. It’s – in some ways – a pejorative term. Other examples include commit murder, commit perjury, commit adultery … The inference being that to commit the act willfully, is to do something wrong. It is usually akin to breaking the law, though not necessarily. We might, e.g. commit a blunder.

The other side of the coin is where we use the word commit in a more positive sense. We commit to something: to a relationship, to marriage, to finishing a task. Grammatically speaking the structures aren’t the same of course, but the key word commit remains the same.

In recent decades, at least in the west, there has been a shift towards a greater understanding of mental health issues. That’s lead some to the conclusion that the term “commit” in relation to suicide is – at best – unhelpful and insensitive.

I’m ill at ease with the direction this is going. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m from a background and persuasion that suicide is always a choice, while at the same time recognising that at the time of suicide a person almost certainly is ‘unhinged’ or ‘temporarily insane’ and somewhere on the edge of the mental illness spectrum. I’m talking here of intentional suicide, whether that suicide is effected by taking a gun to one’s head, throwing oneself in front of a train or vehicle or from a bridge or high tower, or quietly taking too many pills in a darkened room. And I’m also not sure how my thinking -and language – shifts  (or should be adjusted) when talking about assisted suicide in the face of incurable, inoperable, life-draining illness.

I knew two people who, in the past few years, chose suicide for themselves. Both violently took their own lives. In both cases those who were left behind went through a hell of their own: loss, shame, false guilt, indescribable sadness. Would changing our language help them? I’m not sure it would. What do you think, I wonder.

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