Many have reported that British snowboarder Ellie Soutter “committed” suicide on her 18th birthday. However, the term is both insensitive – and inaccurate.
Earlier this week, it was confirmed that Ellie Soutter – one of the “country’s best up-and-coming snowboarders”, and the only Team GB athlete to secure a medal at the European Youth Olympic Winter Festival in Turkey last year – had died suddenly on her 18th birthday.
Today, speaking publicly for the first time since his daughter’s death, Tony Soutter told BBC South East that he believes his daughter’s history of mental health issues, coupled with the pressure of elite performance, may have contributed to her ending her life in Les Gets in the French Alps.
“She wanted to be the best,” he said. “She didn’t want to let anybody down.
“Unfortunately it all came about from missing a flight which then meant she didn’t go training with the GB squad.
“She felt she’d let them down, felt she’d let me down and just tragically it just takes one silly little thing like that to tip someone over the edge, because there’s a lot of pressure on children.”
Calling for action to help other young athletes, Mr Soutter added: “Mental health awareness needs to be really looked at and made more public.”
He isn’t wrong, as the language used in headlines and social media posts around the sportswoman’s death have proven; in particular, the use of the phrase “committed suicide”.
As defined by Google, the word “commit” means “to perpetrate or carry out (a mistake, crime or immoral act).” For example, “He committed an uncharacteristic error.” Common synonyms for the word include: perpetrate, be to blame for, be guilty of and to be responsible for.
The general impression of the phrase “committed suicide”, therefore, is that suicide is sinful – and it takes us back to the bad old days, when suicide (then referred to as ‘self-murder’) was still punishable as a crime in England and Wales. It suggests that anyone who dies by suicide has deliberately done something wrong. That Ellie Soutter wilfully chose to take her own life, when, really, she had been overcome by mental illness. That she was a criminal, rather than a victim.
In short, it feeds into the stigma around mental health. And we, all of us who use the term unthinkingly, need to stop.
As Jo Loughran, Director of Time to Change (a growing movement of people changing how we all think and act about mental health problems), tells Stylist: “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.”
Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide awareness activist who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is trained in crisis intervention, advises that we should instead use “more objective phrasing”, such as ‘died by/from suicide’, ‘ended their life’ or ‘took their life’.
“If we’re using the right language, if we’re pulling negative connotations from the language, talking about suicide may be easier,” she says.
Shortly after Ellie’s death, UK Sport confirmed that it was working with a number of mental health organisations to provide support to young athletes – one of which is Mind.
And, speaking to Stylist, Hayley Jarvis – who is the charity’s Head of Physical Activity – explains why this new initiative is so important.
“One in four of us in the UK will be affected by a mental health problem in any year and elite sports professionals are no different,” she tells us.
“We have seen an increase in sportspeople revealing their own mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and self-harm. There is an urgent need to improve the support available to sports professionals and to create an environment where it’s always ok to ask for help.
“We know that there is some progress being made in the sports sector. Mind is working with UK Sport on a mental health strategy that will focus on education, awareness and support. We hope that through joint action, we can bring about much needed change, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and lead to a future where all sports professionals will be well supported.”
Time to Change is run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
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. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. You can find more information on their website.