Zoe Ball, Sadiq Khan and Stephen Fry are among those calling for an end to the use of the term.
The phrase “committed suicide” is one we often read in news articles or hear used in casual conversation to describe someone who took their own life. But the use of the word “committed” is problematic, thanks to its connotations of criminal activity or sinfulness.
Indeed, the phrase is a hangover from a time in British history when suicide was illegal. Before 1961, anyone who attempted and failed to take their own life in England and Wales could be prosecuted – a law that reflected traditional Christian ideas about the supposed immorality of suicide.
In recent months, mental health campaigners and charities have been calling for people to stop using the phrase. Now, almost 150 public figures – including Lauren Laverne, Emily Maitlis and Stephen Fry – have signed an open letter in which they implore the media to think more carefully about how suicide is portrayed in print and online and to avoid “outdated language and stereotypes”.
“We still read that a person has ‘committed suicide’, suggesting suicide is either a sin or a crime, or both,” says the letter.
“It has not been a crime in the UK since 1961. This form of words can imply that to take one’s own life is a selfish, cowardly, criminal or irreligious act, rather than the manifestation of extreme mental distress and unbearable pain. It also adds to the stigma and feelings of shame that prevent people from reaching out for help.”
The letter was written by Labour MP Luciana Berger and journalist Bryony Gordon ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day, and signed by broadcasters, campaigners, politicians and writers including author JoJo Moyes, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and presenter Zoë Ball, whose boyfriend Billy Yates died by suicide in 2017.
It notes that media reports of celebrity deaths can encourage others to take their own lives, citing a recent study which found there was a 10% increase in suicides in the US in the months after the death of Robin Williams.
“This emphasises the responsibility that we all have when it comes to talking about suicide,” the letter says.
“We should not describe a suicide as ‘easy’, ‘painless’, ‘quick’ or ‘effective’, and we should remember to look at the long-term consequences of suicide attempts, not forgetting the significant life-long pain for those left behind when someone does take their own life.”
Many publications, including Stylist, already follow media guidelines laid out by Samaritans on how to responsibly report deaths by suicide. These guidelines include notes such as “think about the impact of the coverage on your audience”, “exercise caution when referring to the methods and context of a suicide”, and “aim for non-sensationalising, sensitive coverage”.
However, not all publications adhere to the Samaritans’ advice.
Jo Loughran is director of Time to Change, a movement of people seeking to change how we think and act about mental health problems. Speaking to Stylist after British Olympic snowboarder Ellie Soutter died by suicide in August, Loughran said: “The language we use around suicide is important. The phrase ‘committed suicide’ should be avoided as it is not illegal to take your own life.
“Portraying suicide as a crime, or something sinful, contributes to the stigma around mental health problems and could prevent people from seeking help, or vital support from those around them.”
Suicide is a delicate and complex subject, and the reasons behind it cannot be easily or fully quantified.
However, while you can never really generalise how struggling to cope can make you feel or act, the Samaritans have compiled a list of symptoms.
- Lacking energy or feeling tired
- Feeling restless and agitated
- Feeling tearful
- Not wanting to talk to or be with people
- Not wanting to do things you usually enjoy
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope with feelings
- Finding it hard to cope with everyday things
If you think that these sound like you or someone you know, the charity has urged that you get in touch with them now.
Samaritans adds: “You don’t have to feel suicidal to get in touch. Only one person in five who calls Samaritans actually says that they feel suicidal.”
Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mind also provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. You can find more information on their website.
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