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A Frank Conversation – The Use of Language

During the summer of 2014, I was given the opportunity to intern at beyondblue, a not-for-profit organisation that works towards increasing the awareness and understanding of anxiety and depression and the surrounding stigma. Through their collaborations and initiatives, beyondblue hopes to continue their work in relation to suicide awareness and to decrease the associated stigma that is attached. Suicide is a taboo topic that many individuals are wary of discussing.  It remains a topic that is stigmatised and shamed by society.  We, as a society, have been anxious to have an open and honest discussion about this issue because of the fear of a ripple effect of suicides.  However, I will seek to show that a change of language within the suicide discourse can have a positive effect in changing people’s attitude and perspective, and reduce the associated stigma.  By switching the use of negatively geared language to sensitive and accurate descriptors, it will contribute to an open and honest dialogue. A change in language will contribute to altering the perspectives’ of society and assist in removing the stigma that has been attached to the act of suicide. It will provide a safe place for suicide to be discussed and will help people understand the causes of and recognise suicidal tendencies.

Criminality

The suicide discourse is often associated with the word ‘commit.’  The use of the word ‘commit’ does not contribute to help seeking behaviour; but in fact perpetuates and encourages stigma.[1] The word ‘commit’ should not be used to describe the actions of an individual.  This adjective can be derived from when suicide was a crime, however it has been abrogated from Victorian criminal law.[2]  Therefore, one should avoid the use of this adjective as it imports notions of criminality, which carries a negative connotation. Section 6A of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) states, ‘the rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit or to attempt to commit suicide is hereby abrogated.’  Although the crime has been abrogated, the use of the word ‘commit’ is not necessary.  It is harmful in use, as it incites further stigmatisation, and should be removed from s 6A by the Victorian Parliament.  An individual who suicides is not a criminal and should not be made to feel that the Parliament has carvedout this exception from the Crimes Act.  Changing the language of the section will help to reduce the associated stigma and will promote a healthier dialogue. References to criminality should be avoided throughout the suicide discourse.  This issue was seen when the Honourable Jeff Kennett was invited to speak to Melbourne Law Students in March 2014 regarding the founding of beyondblue and his continued work in this domain. Mr Kennett was very careful when speaking of suicide, often referring to the act as ‘taking one life’s’, however, one moment of his speech that resonated was when he stated, “it is no longer a crime to have a [mental illness], but it is a crime if you do not seek help.”  Although I understand the emphasis and the message that Mr Kennett was trying convey, this was not the correct language.  Although there is a degree of personal responsibility that an individual has in seeking help for their mental illness, his reference to criminality does nothing to aid a positive discourse; but rather it reinforces the perpetuating stigma associated with suicide. The work that Mr Kennett has done within this area has been amazing and the initiatives that beyondblue supports, such as The Shed Online that caters for older men’s mental health needs, demonstrates a positive example of their work.  However, any reference to criminality within the suicide discourse does not positively contribute to a change in perspective.

Success and Failure

An individual who suicides or attempts to suicide is often confronted with feelings of hopelessness and loss, emotional turmoil or may be suffering from a mental illness, which can be too much for the individual to bear.  References to  ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘failure’ are not an accurate descriptor in the suicide discourse. A reference to a ‘failed suicide’ is not a negative; in fact it is a positive outcome, because it creates opportunity for the individual to seek help.  An individual who survives a suicide attempt should not be described or made to feel like a failure. Likewise, phrases and words that describe suicide as ‘successful’ are not conducive to the discourse.  Phrases that have a positive slant mean that that individual is dead; however, death is not a positive outcome.

What terms should we use?

Reducing the stigma will only occur through a safe and constructive dialogue, but first we need to be aware of the language that will facilitate this discussion.  To reduce the stigma it is vital that we ensure that suicide is described in neutral terms, that there are no connotations to criminality, and no references to success or failure. It is acceptable to state that an individual has ‘suicided,’ as the term suicide is both a noun and a verb.  Other phrases that should be used include, ‘died by suicide’, ‘ended their life’, ‘took their own life’, ‘non-fatal attempt at suicide’, ‘survived an attempt’, and ‘attempt to end their life.’[3] By utilising different language it will facilitate a safe dialogue, where suicide is not shamed and awareness of the causes and effects are heightened.  This will develop a nuanced conversation and help to stop the perpetuating stigma.

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The goal must be to remove the stigma surrounding suicide; in order for this process to begin our language needs to be updated to facilitate a healthier and safe dialogue.  Phrases such as ‘committed suicide’, ‘unsuccessful attempt’ or ‘successful suicide’ do not reduce stigma but rather perpetuates the stigma.  By limiting the use of this negatively associated language, and replacing it with language that accurately and sensitively describes the act, such as, ‘died by suicide’, a healthier conversation about the risks, causes, and effects of suicide can begin.   A change in perspective will only begin with the correct language. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au.


photo credit: Kate White www.said-jane.com/footprints/

  1. Susan Beaton, Dr Peter Forster and Dr Myfanwy Maple, Suicide and Language; why we shouldn’t use the ‘C’ word ’ (February 2013) InPsych []
  2. Crimes Act 1958 s6A []
  3. Alberta Mental Health Board, What’s in a word? The language of suicide (2009) Alberta Health Services []

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