Content warning: discussions of suicide.
Research has found that “suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, with around 3,000 people dying by suicide every year.” It’s now recognised as an area that requires more funding and more support, extending to the 2017 Budget, which announced there would be an increase in funding towards mental health services, including Lifeline and counselling and psychological services.
Yet despite this recognition, suicide is still stigmatised within social, cultural and institutional structures. A crucial element reinforcing this stigmatisation is “negatively associated language“. Language plays a dangerous role in reinforcing and perpetuating negative perceptions of suicide as “selfish”, “crazy” and “taking the easy way out”.
So where did this stigmatising terminology stem from? Historically, the term “commit” was used through many religions to condemn those who took their lives or attempted to take their lives. This connotation between moral sin and suicide extended into laws, making suicide a crime. In fact, it is still considered a moral sin in some religions and is still a crime today in certain countries such as Singapore, Jordan, Malaysia, Bahamas and Kenya. (For a table regarding laws across the globe on suicide, click here).
While laws characterising suicide as a crime in Australia are long gone (though assisted suicide and euthanasia are still illegal), the stigma surrounding this legal classification has remained. It informs our social, cultural and institutional structures around discussing and providing support for people experiencing suicidal thoughts. It isn’t just inappropriate to retain language from a by-gone era, it’s also harmful. It prevents us from creating a space for thoughtful discussion and compassionate understanding for people experiencing suicidal thoughts. It prevents us from creating safe spaces for people to seek help and therefore “reduce[s] help-seeking behaviour“.
The images below are screenshots from reportings on suicide this year. Sourced from a range of media outlets, it’s clear the use of inappropriate and harmful terminology is still far too prevalent.
Continuing the use of “commit”, as well as other inappropriate and harmful language such as “successful suicide”, “completed suicide, “failed attempt at suicide” and “unsuccessful suicide”, reinforces the stigma of suicide. Beyondblue offer an appropriate list of terminology based off the Australian Psychological Society, which includes “died by suicide”, “suicided”, “ended his/her/their life”, “took his/her/their life” and “attempt to end his/her/their life”.
Using appropriate language serves to both show “respect in caring for people affected by suicide, as well as being accurate in relation to their experience“. By simply changing a few words around, we are able to break down the stigmatising barrier and humanise those experiencing suicidal thoughts.
When initially approaching this project, I decided to make it an audio piece as the main concept being addressed here is language. I wanted the audience to focus on just that: the words, the language. The repetition of the phrase “committed suicide” highlights how prevalent the use of outdated terminology is and how harmful that is. I made a point of including music with my voiceover, but cutting it at the end to emphasise how isolating and again, harmful, this language is. I decided to include information on Beyond Blue, as I felt that gave this project a clearer direction by providing a next step of action to take after learning about the stigmatisation of “commit”.
Changing around a few words can make a great difference. Let’s end the stigma of suicide, and work towards a supportive future, because stigmatising language is silencing.
Recommended viewing to help humanise and de-stigmatise suicide is ‘You Can’t Ask That: Suicide Attempt Survivors’, available at this link.
If you need support, Lifeline 13 11 14 offers 24-hour assistance. For further information about mental health, beyondblue, headspace and Reach Out can provide guidance. You can also talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.
Beaton S. 2013. Suicide and language: Why we shouldn’t use the ‘C’ word, InPsych, Australian Psychological Society. Accessed 11th May 2017. Available from http://www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=5048
Beyond Blue. 2017. Language when talking about suicide, Beyondblue. Accessed 11th May 2017. Available from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/suicide-prevention/worried-about-suicide/having-a-conversation-with-someone-you’re-worried-about/language-when-talking-about-suicide
Beyond Blue. 2017. Statistics and references: Suicide, Beyondblue. Accessed 11th May 2017. Available from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/research-projects/statistics-and-references?sec=sec-sui
Cowan K. 2015. Suicide and Its Unrelenting Stigma, Huffington Post, available from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristina-cowan/suicide-and-its-unrelenti_b_6543364.html
GLOOM. 2014. Is Suicide Illegal? Suicide Laws By Country, Mental Health Daily, available from http://mentalhealthdaily.com/2014/07/24/is-suicide-illegal-suicide-laws-by-country/
Medhora S. 2017. How the 2017 Budget will affect you, Triple J Hack, ABC News, available from http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/how-the-2017-budget-will-affect-you/8507962
Sydney Criminal Lawyers. 2017. What is the law on suicide in Australia?, FindLaw Australia. Available from http://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/5556/what-is-the-law-on-suicide-in-australia.aspx
Soundbites in order of appearance
K Percy. 2016. ABC TV news looks at Farmer Suicide in Australia, Youtube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8yDp3yI-HA&t=80s
ABC News Australia. 2011. Approved refugee committs suicide in detention, Youtube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE7eH4wx-mw&t=17s
SBS Viceland. 2017. Farmer Suicide In Queensland I The Feed, Youtube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xge34p6V94g&t=190s.
7News. 2012. School pays for bullied teen’s death, Youtube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAprhO58GN0
7News. 2013. 7News – Family’s mission to stop teen suicide, Youtube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4lbWHP8CI4&t=5s
Rafi:ki. 2015. rafi:ki / mixtape 015 / instrumental hiphop / trip-hop, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0), Soundcloud, available athttps://soundcloud.com/rafi-ki/rafiki-mixtape-015-instrumental-hiphop-triphop