Language matters: How the way we talk about suicide makes a difference

Suicidal feelings can be difficult to share with others. We can all play our part in creating a welcoming space for those in distress.

Person using a ballpoint pen to write in a notebook
Photo by lilartsy / Unsplash
This story discusses suicide and suicidal feelings. If you're in the UK and need support, you can contact Samaritans. Either call 116 123 at anytime of day for free or email For more information, visit the charity's Contact Us page.

Suicide is a topic surrounded by taboo, misunderstandings, and emotions. You may have a particular outlook on the effects of suicide, whether on the family, friends, or others affected by the person's death or the act itself. However, for someone to feel suicidal, they may feel as though they have no other options. Whether it's clinical depression, life circumstances, or something else, most people, generally, are highly resistant to the thought of permanently ending their life.

It's not usually an impulsive thought that people act out on a whim. Ending your life means overcoming the built-in impulse to stay alive. Even when suicide appears to have been a spontaneous decision, there's likely to have been days, months, or even years of internal dialogue endlessly debating whether to do it. The intense thoughts about their situation, how they feel about themselves, and what to do about it have probably been weighing on them for some time.

This culminates at a point where they decide that they can't continue with things the way they are. They may even perceive themselves to be a burden to those around them, prompting them to make an irreversible decision. Those they leave behind have to attempt to make sense of what's happened and whether it had to be this way. Although there's no single intervention you can make in this situation, there are ways we can, collectively, make it easier for those with such intense thoughts and feelings.

In popular culture, we often hear that people have committed suicide. To commit in this sense refers to criminality. In England and Wales, suicide was a criminal act until 1961, and it was considered shameful, a violation, and against the sensibilities of most popular religions. This perspective shapes the focus around society, not the person in extreme distress. To prevent people from reaching the point where they consider suicide or end their life, we need to make people feel comfortable sharing their feelings and struggles.

When we say that someone committed suicide, we implicitly correlate suicidal thoughts and feelings with criminality, shame, and weakness. When someone starts to think about ending their life, we need them to feel respected, understood, and supported, not belittled. Often, they may already feel as though they aren't good enough or have failed in other areas of their lives. The judgment that comes with phrases like committing suicide makes it harder to open up and serves only to reinforce what they already think about themselves.

Rather than relying on terminology that hasn't been applicable for 60 years, we can take care with the way we approach the topic of suicide. There's never a need to suggest that someone has committed suicide, for example. Instead, you could use phrases like ending their life or died by suicide instead. The words we use impact people; it's one of the most fascinating and complex parts of language.

While someone isn't going to take their life because you said someone committed suicide, the cumulative effect of a society entrenched in such dated thinking and terminology prevents those suffering from opening up about how they are feeling. By discussing their thoughts and emotions, there's a good chance that the intensity of these feelings will become more manageable and the risk of suicide reduced.