Suicide and agency

The recent campaign focusing on men’s suicide, Project 84,raised my linguistic eyebrow. While I think the campaign is great and very needed, what struck me was the phrase ‘lost to suicide’: 84 sculptures represent “a real life lost to suicide”. Indeed, the phrase was used many times in Twitter exchanges. Men were ‘lost to suicide’. This post might be controversial to some readers.

Before I tell you about what I think about it, let me start, yet another time, with the basics. It all starts with the use of ‘commit’, which time and again is said to imply sin and crime. The authors of a recent article (which mixes two understandings of the word ‘commit’) start it by saying:

Suicide is not a sin and is no longer a crime, so we should stop saying that people ‘commit’ suicide.

Moreover, in a recent Twitter exchange, I was told that the use of ‘commit’ stops people from accessing services. Alas, my request to provide evidence for this claim went unheeded. My attempt to contact the Samaritans, who were credited with the finding, was also unsuccessful.

Just as in an earlier post (Committing to ‘commit’), I would like to express scepticism at the claims that the word ‘commit’ is commonly understood as implying sinfulness or illegality, much as ‘the sun rises’ is probably no longer understood as referring to the moving sun. Moreover, it’s also worth reminding ourselves that you can commit a mistake, you can commit an act, you can commit a logical fallacy, none of which have ever been illegal (I think), nor have they been sins. And yet, we do use the word ‘commit’ with them.

The point I keep making is that the arguments about ‘commit’ are simplistic and skim over a much more complex linguistic and social reality. But if anyone actually does know evidence that it is the use of the word ‘commit’ that actually is responsible for people not accessing services, I would be very grateful for pointing me to it.

So, enough of ‘commit’ and back to ‘lost to suicide’. What strikes me about this phrase is that it is yet another step on the way to linguistic obliteration of human agency in suicide. I have written time and again about the phrase ‘die by suicide’, as one which removes agency in suicide, suggesting that suicide simply happens. Indeed, during the conference of the current American Association of Suicidology, the phrase ‘die by suicide’ was used next to ‘die by cancer’. But suicide is not an illness, for goodness sake!! It is an act, even though suicidologists like talking about suicidal behaviour, again removing agency.

The phrase ‘lost to suicide’ goes even further. The person who has been ‘lost to suicide’ is constructed as taken by it, as if they had had no role in dying. But they did. For a variety of reasons, they took their life. The removal of the person from the act is complete. Suicide happens. Nobody commits, does it, performs it, it simply occurs. Those who kill themselves are at the mercy of suicide, as if with no part in it.

I wonder to what extent those who started using the phrase, understand its consequences. Moreover, I keep wondering about the extent to which it is ethical to linguistically take away the agency from the people who killed themselves. As much as I do understand that there are people for whom the phrase ‘commit suicide’ is painful and their views are crucially important, there also those who actually did commit suicide. I have no idea how to answer this question, still, it is, in my view, an important question. Do ‘we’, in the way we describe them, have a responsibility also to those who killed themselves?

Now, finally, for a linguist, a debate about one phrase makes little sense, especially that it is a debate without much evidence. The oft-quoted evidence that survivors of suicide don’t like the phrase is limited and certainly not applicable universally. What is needed, in my view, is first and foremost understanding how ‘we’ want to describe the act of suicide. In other words, instead of attempting to ‘ban’ a phrase, it’s better to understand what  its consequences are and whether those consequences are desirable.

And one such crucial point is intentionality and agency. Both ‘died by suicide’ or ‘lost to suicide’ linguistically remove both intentionality behind the act and the agency of the person who kills themselves. Is this what suicidology wants? Is it what the area of suicide prevention wants?

There are two ways in which answers can be given. One is ideological. We want to describe suicide in a particular way because we think this is the good way, the right way, the appropriate way. On balance, we know best, because we are involved in the field. Fair enough? Sort of.

On the other hand, there is ‘science’. One can, unsurprisingly, do research and see what the most helpful way of talking about suicide is. Such helpfulness could consider those who lost their relatives in an act of suicide. It could also consider those who are thinking about killing themselves. I still think that ‘commit suicide’ can be protective and research is needed to check this. And I have already heard quite a number of times that I am utterly wrong in saying this, so far, however, nobody has offered evidence for this. None at all. Just being very confident.

On balance, I think it is the latter way which is more useful. And this is why, again, I protest against simplistic assumptions that one phrase is bad, another is good, just because ‘we’ say so. Social and linguistic reality is complex and there are hardly ever simple solutions which answer all questions and issues. And so, let’s at least discuss thoroughly what is at stake and offer some evidence for the consequences. I’m just tired of hearing that you just know things.



1 Comment
  1. I agree with your paper. I think keeping it simple and factual is critical. ‘She/he killed her self’

    That’s fact. To keep saying committed or died by sucide is nonsense.

    If we can’t face the truth we are in no position to help.

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