Changing the Conversation on Suicide
Before 1961, anyone who endeavoured and failed to take their own life in England and Wales could be prosecuted; an outdated decree reflecting supposed Christian ideas about the immorality of suicide. The Suicide Act 1961 changed this; however, “committed suicide” remains a common expression, often printed in newspapers or one that we hear in conversations to describe an individual who has sadly taken their own life. However, the linguistics has caused recent debates about the negative connotations attached to this phrase. The word “committed” assumes some kind of criminality, wrongdoing or sinfulness on the part of the individual; wherein reality, suicide is a manifestation of extreme mental distress or intolerable pain.
For the world suicide day, which took place on the 10th September, charities, celebrities and mental health campaigners called for an end to this outdated phrase. 150 public figures including the likes of Stephen Fry and Sadiq Khan signed an open letter, written by Labour MP, Luciana Berger and Journalist and bestselling author Bryony Gordon, beseeching the media to think more tactfully about how suicide is portrayed to avoid such outdated mental health stereotypes.
Representing suicide as law breaking or corruption contributes to the stigma still shrouding mental health illness, and could potentially prevent those who need help from reaching out. Suicide is a complex and delicate issue, and the reasons behind it cannot be quantified or generalised into one phrase.
We should do our part to think carefully about how we talk about suicide and mental health to change the conversation. The Samaritans have published some helpful and much needed guidelines on discussing suicide on their website.