Should we stop saying ‘commit suicide’?

Written by Carolyn Spring
13 September 2018
Should we stop saying ‘commit suicide’?

‘Unfortunately, you’ve undone all the good you’ve done today.’

She was deadly serious and I was utterly perplexed. What was she talking about? I had spent the day delivering my training day ‘Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm.’ A tough day, but a good day. A day of hope for how to help people who see no other way through their pain but by taking their own lives. A day of guts-and-bowels emotion.

I waited for an explanation.

‘A few times you used the phrase ‘committed suicide’,’ she explained, evidently irritated with my slowness. ‘It undoes all the good you do.’ I waited for her to expound. She complied. ‘The legal connotations of that phrase are so unhelpful. It undoes all the other good you do.’

Had I really invalidated my message of hope in the face of unbearable suffering by saying ‘commit suicide’? By saying it three times in less than a minute, this lady evidently thought so. I felt like I’d just been stung by the undercover thought police.

If asked what verb goes with ‘suicide’ – ‘How do you do suicide?’ then many people’s response would undoubtedly be ‘commit’. People ‘commit suicide’. In common English usage there’s no other verb that associates with it so naturally. For right or for wrong, it’s a strongly bound word pairing. And yet the phrase ‘to commit suicide’ caused outright offence to the delegate from my course. She and others say that it reinforces the myth that suicide is a crime, placing it within a legal context, rather than seeing such distress without moral overtones.

I agree wholeheartedly that we should do whatever we can to reduce the distress of a suicidal person. In my training I argue that distress is the core problem, and that many of our ways of responding to people who are suicidal, such as by sectioning them, only increase their distress, which paradoxically exacerbates their risk of suicide.

There is nothing quite like the searing, unabating pain of suicidal distress. It was my frequent companion. Over a number of years, I made a number of suicide attempts. I had no hope that my suffering would relent, and I had no strategies for dealing with my distress. So suicide seemed like the only option. It wasn’t, but it didn’t feel like that. I was extremely vulnerable, even fragile. Arguably, what people did or didn’t do around me could have had a fatal outcome.

So when we talk about suicide, should we adjust our language, as some are asking us to? Should we avoid saying ‘commit suicide’ in case this offends or in some way makes things worse for the suicidal person?

I understand the motivation behind the campaign for this, and I laud the compassion which drives it – to make it easier for people to ask for help when they are suicidal, rather than making it more difficult by moral insinuation. The intention here is to help, and who could disagree with that?

But I wonder if we’re just being railroaded down a road of political correctness which deflects our attention from the real issue of actually, really, properly dealing with someone’s distress? By fussing about our terminology, are we in fact missing the core issue of someone’s pain? Does anyone actually kill themselves, or fail to seek help, because someone said ‘commit’ to them at some point? Does it make a difference? Or is it a distraction from far more important issues?

I have to admit I feel deeply uncomfortable at this issue. The distress I felt that led to several suicide attempts was so profound, so unbearable. A discussion over the word ‘commit’ seems by comparison so shallow: the luxury of the non-suicidal. When your mind is on fire, you don’t want to debate the connotations of words.

To check it out, I asked several people I know who are currently experiencing such suffering. All of them have made suicide attempts within the last year or so. It’s not a scientific study but it takes a pulse.
‘Does it bother you that people say ‘commit suicide’?’ I asked them all. Without fail, they all responded blankly. They had no idea what I was talking about. One woman in particular, her self-harm scars seeming to scream at me in offence, curled her lip down and looked like she was going to be sick: ‘For fuck’s sake,’ she said, anger welling up in her eyes. ‘People really don’t give a shit about the pain I’m in, do they? They just want to argue about words.’

‘Commit’ is a neutral word, in and of its own. It’s the verb that’s used to describe someone simply doing something. Adultery isn’t illegal, but people commit it. There’s no legal connotation there, at least not any more. I can’t imagine that anyone committing adultery feel mistakenly ashamed of breaking the law. There are other negative connotations to the verb too: we may be committed to a psychiatric ward.

At a funeral the corpse is committed to the grave. And yet on the flip side, ‘commit’ has positive meaning. We commit to go to the gym. We commit to read more. We commit ourselves to people we love, to our careers, to our marriages, to our children. We honour our commitments. It’s a word with a Latin origin, and hence perhaps an air of authority. Com means ‘with’. Mittere is ‘to put or send’. The Latin word combining both elements is committere ‘to unite, to join, to entrust’. We entrust someone into custody. We unite together and form a committee. As we commit someone to the grave, we join dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

For me, it’s just a word. Some people for sure will hear it as implying criminality; my guess is that most, like me, do not. I don’t think its inappropriateness is as clear-cut as the lady on my course was implying. I don’t think most people in using the term ‘commit suicide’ have the slightest thought of a criminal act – not any more. And by trying to outlaw the phrase, are we in fact making the association stronger, rather than weaker? It’s certainly not something that had ever occurred to me until it was pointed out – in which case, it’s a bit of an own-goal. But there’s a deeper issue here too.

Firstly, do people really not seek help when they’re suicidal because they are offended by the use of the word ‘commit’, feel its legal implications, are concerned that people will think that they are engaging in a criminal act, and therefore hang back? I don’t think so. People don’t come forwards for help for many reasons, but I’m not sure this is one of them, and certainly not a major one.

More likely, they don’t know who to approach for help, they are ambivalent about asking for help, their social engagement system is shut down by being in the traumatic state of mind called the ‘suicidal mode’, or they are ashamed at being in so much distress in the first place. It never once occurred to me to not seek help because people were using the word ‘commit’ alongside ‘suicide’. Maybe it was just me, but my focus was always on the latter word. I was driven by pain and suffering and distress, far beyond sensitivity to the nuances of meaning.

Surely the bigger problem is that people experience so much distress in their lives, with such underdeveloped skills for managing it, that they become suicidal in the first place? Should we not be focusing our campaigning efforts instead on reducing sources of distress, and increasing people’s resilience and coping capacities, giving them hope and giving them the support they need to deal with this distress, rather than policing our language? I’d rather keep the main thing the main thing. Secondly, many people want to help the deeply distressed and suicidal. They often don’t know what to do or say. Will they be reluctant to get involved if we insist that only certain phrases are acceptable? ‘I’m no good at this,’ they may think. ‘I’ll make things worse. I obviously don’t know what I’m doing. I even get the words wrong. I’d better not speak to a suicidal person in case I say the wrong thing.’

That’s not helpful, is it? We need people to feel more confident about helping someone in emotional distress, not less. We need to reassure them that the worst thing they can do is to not say anything, rather than scaring them and making them feel that they won’t get it right. People kill themselves, on the whole, when they are alone. That is a striking finding from research. There is no evidence to suggest that they kill themselves because people say ‘commit’ suicide. In fact, someone using all the ‘wrong’ words – but showing genuine empathy, compassion and care – is far more likely to help than hinder. If I were once again on the brink, I would prefer it if someone said, ‘Please don’t commit suicide’ than nothing at all. I wouldn’t really mind what they said.

I would only mind if they didn’t seem to care. And if they’re stumbling over their words, worried about what to say, they might just come across as if they don’t. We’ve got to get alongside people who are deeply distressed, even if that means saying the wrong things. We’ve got to show concern, give them hope, and then formulate a plan with them about how things are going to improve. We’ve got to relate deeply and authentically as human beings. And for many of us it’s normal to say ‘commit suicide’ and we don’t mean anything negative by it. Let’s stop worrying that we’ll use the wrong word. It’s more important that we use any words than we feel so scared of reaching out to a suicidal person for fear of getting it wrong. The only way we get it wrong is if we don’t reach out at all. 

I have stopped using the phrase ‘commit suicide’ whenever possible. Sometimes, if I’m quoting someone else, I will use it because I cannot rewrite other people’s words or the past. I want to be as sensitive as possible to people – that’s not the issue. But sensitivity works both ways. And maybe we could all have a little more grace to each other, not to jump on each other for ‘getting it wrong’? An outlook that has helped me immeasurably is that ‘we’re all doing the best we can’: and if someone uses the ‘wrong’ language with the ‘right’ attitude, that to me is a lot better than the ‘right’ language with the ‘wrong’ attitude. So maybe let’s agree to use less problematic language where we can, whilst not demonising those who still do? 

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Suicide – to be or not to be?

I could cope with it no longer. Every part of me – eyelids, throat, bowels – everything was clenched tight in a ball of furious unbearability. This feeling – such a feeling! – loomed up over me like some prehistoric sea-monster, ready to snap me up and devour me, ready to pilfer my bones and pick apart my brain. This feeling was too much.


Words that make us feel seen

Are the words we’re using, to describe our own experience or to make sense of someone else’s, distracting from human suffering and a bid for connection and support? Or are they tools to be able to come alongside someone in their distress?


Trust is built

‘Trust me,’ says the therapist.

And everything in me wants to curl up and away, disappear some place in my head, and never come back.

It is an understatement to say it, but those two words are a massive trigger.


  • Claire on 8 October 2018 at 11:56 am

    This is something I have been more aware recently though struggle to find any alternative. I think the words we use are important and for me it’s less about when talking to someone in distress and more about how we talk about these things in every day language. Words do have power and just as using the n-word has changed and the way queer is used, I think the connotations that saying commit suicide has around blame and criminality are valid and detract from the hopelessness or helplessness that is present when in that state. I don’t believe it is likely to be a triggering word but I try and avoid saying it; I’m more likely to say ‘kill yourself’ if we are discussing suicide in therapy, but just as correcting someone saying they’ve got “mental health” rather than mental illness or mental health struggles (as I do because I think it’s an important distinction) can raise awareness of the intricacies of an issue, so it can with (committing) suicide.

  • Jan Athorn on 8 October 2018 at 12:13 pm

    I whole heartedly agree Carolyn, when we are hung up on words we really are losing sight of a person’s distress and perspective, which is already skewed by their pain. I know through working with suicidal clients that what they need to hear and feel is that another person cares, really cares about them feeling less distressed and safe in their own body and mind to live another day. I don’t even know if I talk about it (suicide) using the term ‘commit suicide’, I would probably talk about taking your life, ending things or not feeling able to live on and yet equally I would not be concerned at saying it. The important thing for me is being with that person and allowing them to explore suicidal feelings or intent with every hope that by doing so some of their pain is relinquished, even just enough to live on another day and make a safety plan.

  • Michelle Woolf on 8 October 2018 at 1:12 pm

    Carolyn well said
    The feeling is most important, finding that safe place is paramount.
    As a hypnotherapist you would think I would be advocating the use of words but definitely not in this subject as empathy compassion is required when someone in crisis. Engagement with them is paramount, ensuring they get the opportunity it express themselves, feel safe etc.
    Great piece putting into perspective the reality of the world giving all sides.
    As the saying goes you can not please all the people all the time.

  • Julia on 8 October 2018 at 1:45 pm

    I realise I feel quite reassured by your blog. I have recently been trying not to say commit after reading that people find it difficult. I think from what I’ve read, it’s the bereaved by suicide that the phrase seems to hurt so much -which I do understand. Then again, I’m not sure what wouldn’t hurt in those circumstances. The one I find really hard is “to complete suicide”, as that feels like it’s only when you’ve died that something’s completed. Anyway, I think that I’m not going to worry so much about saying commit suicide, though perhaps killed oneself is less emotive. The real issue as you say is the pain and anguish of suicidal thoughts and feelings, and how to be able to talk about and deal with them.

  • Sarah on 8 October 2018 at 7:55 pm

    As a Mental Health Nurse, we tend to say complete(d) suicide.

  • Rosie on 8 October 2018 at 9:41 pm

    Good to read this and the comments. I do see your point Carolyn, I’m sorry someone chose to tell you “you’d undone all the good”.

    I am someone who was bereaved by suicide. 50 years ago my mother took her life, it was considered then to be a crime. It held great stigma and I felt it, I was nine years old and ostracised for many years, my mothers death and my fathers attempt five years later and my own 6 months after his, couldn’t be talked about.
    So I too know the great pain and distress that leads to feeling suicidal and attempting suicide.
    I do now let people know as gently as I can, that I and others would prefer the commit word not to be used. Because it does still feel it’s being judged as a crime, and something to be ashamed off. I was told how selfish I was and had no one to give me understanding and compassion at the tender age of 14, and not for many many years later. Yet I still let the word comit slip at times, because it’s the word that was used then so can come out of my mouth automatically. As it did only 9 days ago, on encountering a very distressed young man, a stranger on a park bench who I sat down and talked too. I have attended a local survivors of suicide group in recent years and the feeling of not being able to talk about bereavement particularly by suicide is still very strong for survivors. So I would say and know many survivors would say, ‘please try to remember not to use the word comit if you can’. Thank you.

  • Michael on 9 October 2018 at 12:57 am

    As a Samaritan for 12 years, we are trained to specifically not use the phrase “commit suicide” due to the stigma associated with it having been seen as “committing a crime” or, in some religious beliefs, “committing a sin”. I’ve spoken to many people on the helpline who say they’ve felt stigma and shame directed at themselves or a loved one for having attempted or completed suicide. We prefer to use a less loaded phrase, such as “died by suicide”.

    Suicide was only decriminalised in England and Wales in 1961, and it was only in 2015 that the General Synod of the Church of England voted to give full funeral rites to people who have died by suicide.

    So, in answer to the question posed in the title of your blog, yes, I believe we should stop saying “commit suicide”, though perhaps the person who raised the issue with you could have done so more sensitively.

  • Helen on 9 October 2018 at 1:10 pm

    Carolyn please try and hang on to the immeasurable help and support you have given to survivors (not sure if that’s an okay word to use these days), professionals and partners over the years.

    The comment ‘You’ve undone all the good you’ve done today’ feels an extreme reaction to me, though of course, we don’t know how it was experienced personally by the one saying it.

    I too believe words are important. I think it helps us to have different ways of saying suicide, in different contexts, but surely anything that gets in the way of the fundamental message ‘I care about the inescapable agony you are feel you are in’ is surely more destructive?

    I think the phrases like, taking one’s own life and died by suicide are no doubt the right words for different occasions and I take on board the connotations for some of ‘commit suicide’. My concern is that by using these different words at all times, we may give the impression that we are not acknowledging the depth of people’s distress when someone can only see suicide as a way out of their agony. By using such phraseology might we also, perhaps inadvertently, convey that we cannot bear to hear or witness what the suicidal might need to say or feel in our presence? (I may be completely on the wrong track, but I am reminded of the phrases, ‘passed away’ and ‘lost’ as kindly meant substitutes for ‘died’. There are times when I am mourning when I need people to recognise there has been a death, rather than use, what for the speaker may feel kinder language. Hope that makes sense.

  • LKearn on 25 October 2018 at 1:19 pm

    As someone who has experienced suicidal ideation and attempts (thankfully, though, not for quite a number of years now), I found the term ‘commit suicide’ really put me off seeking help. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be ‘heard’, and that I would be treated as someone who needed to be locked up like a criminal (which, unfortunately, was what happened when I eventually gathered enough courage to reach out for “professional” help).

    I feel that the word ‘commit’ (which is often used in the context of criminal behaviour – i.e. to commit a crime) reduces the space and time that suicidal people are given to be truly heard and feel understood, and that someone is ‘with’ them in their pain, not just ‘with’ them physically in the same room to stop them from doing anything to themselves. Whilst risk of suicide appropriately creates a sense of urgency in those around the suicidal person, I believe we can enhance our ability to respond in a way that reduces that urgency and creates a ‘pause’ – a place and time of safety – enough to put a ‘break’ on the process, and I don’t believe ‘commit’ helps in that endeavour.

    I think there are strong grounds for finding alternative ways to talk about suicide, such as those put by Michael (the gentleman in the comments who had worked as a Samaritan), but I’m sorry that the delegate approached you in such a way that appeared to write off such valuable work that you’ve done to give help and support to survivors, supporters and professionals.

  • Avery on 26 January 2019 at 4:14 pm

    This is something on my mind lately, so I was seeking out articles on both sides of the argument. My concern is that by softening the language around suicide, it’ll make it easier for people who are already struggling to romanticize it. Especially with “completed suicide.” Killing yourself shouldn’t sound like an achievement. That’s my stance.

  • Mike on 25 April 2020 at 10:02 am

    I completely agree with this post, which I stumbled upon by googling “why shouldn’t we say commit suicide?” as I could not come up with any reason on my own after seeing it suggested.

    Like one of the above posters, I have struggled with suicidal ideation for decades and survived actual attempts and I cannot imagine ever caring about this wording. It had never occurred to me until I read this post that the word “commit” even carried negative connotations. As you note, it has many uses outside of CRIME (!) and is the verb most associated with suicide. Compassion and guidance and support will always mean more and I would not have been better assisted by any kind of performative wokeness. While I would never invalidate anybody’s wishes if they genuinely felt like this language change would help them, it does seem to be a crusade that’s rather sprung out of nowhere and a bit meaningless.

  • Jay on 9 October 2020 at 2:20 pm

    As someone who has lost family in this awful way, and in a very complicated situation, I personally feel that it’s more appropriate to say “took their own life”, or “died by suicide”. Those of us left behind will always hear snide comments about how people with no idea think suicide is “cowardly” or “selfish”, so to then have terminology which implies criminality as well is just not helpful to the grieving process.
    I agree, for people suffering and in crisis, this is not important, and focus should just be on getting them safe. For families and loved ones of those who have died by suicide though (based on my personal experience), I feel quite agitated by the phrase.

  • First Last on 30 November 2022 at 8:45 am

    Different terminology will affect different people in different ways. I disagree with the popular opinion that “committed” should be retired. To commit an act simply means to do something. You could commit a crime, a sin, or an act of kindness or goodness. Suicide is none of these things, but it is an act. It’s something people do as a result of a severe mental illness/trauma. This is not an inherently bad word, though I recognize its many negative associations. I would never say anything to anyone who I knew would find it offensive. However, this word alone should not be chastised solely for that reason. This word just refers to the doing of an action.

  • Indy on 17 October 2023 at 3:00 pm

    Committing suicide being a difficult phrase is interesting…
    I’ve had a lot of attempts over the years, more than I can really count, and honestly ‘commit/attempt suicide’ are the least triggering phrases for me that still recognize the gravity of it. They are, in my mind, interchangable. Most of the alternatives are either much more upsetting (saying someone killed themself, ‘completed suicide’, ect) or feel like awkwardly tiptoeing around the issue (‘took their own life’). But the idea of ‘commit suicide’ having difficult connotations in (certain) religious and grieving communities makes sense to me. I do wonder if many of the alternatives work when talking to those considering or having survived suicide, though, since most of the examples I’ve seen necessitate that someone die from it? Talking about those who ‘die by suicide’ to me, and all that.

    …Regardless, the point of this article is about intent over policing language, and I agree. It’s just in my nature to focus on language, since I’m a writer at heart.

    It reminds me of…

    I’ve tried to explain to multiple of my friends that I would much rather them say something ‘wrong’ to me while upset than panic and either way nothing or offload me on someone else, especially when that someone isn’t even here. I know people get anxious about saying the right thing, but this self-policing often makes things even harder for me when I’m in crisis, which is the only time I bother to reach out anyway.

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