The Language of Suicide

Alton Water after the snow 2021. Gemma Mark

The suicide Act 1961 (9 & 10 Eliz 2 c 60) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It decriminalised the act of suicide in England and Wales so that those who failed in the attempt to kill themselves would no longer be prosecuted.

Suicide is defined as the act of intentionally ending ones own life. Before the Suicide Act 1961 it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded could also be potentially prosecuted. If a man died of terminal cancer would you say to his widow “I hear your husband committed cancer.” If appropriate you would say, “I hear your husband committed murder”, or ,”committed a burglary”.  Suicide is not a crime.

Death by suicide or died by suicide more accurately describes the last act of an individual and at the same time shows respect to those left behind. Growing evidence does suggest there is a connection between the use of negative language like “committed suicide” and the stigma and shame attached specifically to this bereavement.

Clearly, language evolves and words once acceptable will periodically need removing from both our dictionaries and vocabulary, particularly if they are causing offence. But changing language is never easy and will only happen with the support of many stakeholders. Including publishers, the media and of course professionals who come into contact with survivors. Given the history of suicide with its roots steeped in the legal system it is not helpful for the church and police to still use this outdated term.

It is of course quite irrelevant if a survivor chooses to use negative language. Professionals should be setting the example and raising the bar. We are a small specialised charity and are always looking for the support and recognition of our work in the local community.