Euphemisms and suicide

A few days ago, I a reacted to a tweet in which a speaker was reported to suggest that suicidal crisis should be referred to as ‘transformative struggle’, suicide risk could be rendered as ‘life threat’. For me these are euphemisms too far and I would suggest resisting them and other attempts to euphemise suicide. Here is why.

Euphemisms are those expressions which are for protecting the speaker/addressee from causing affront, offence, hurt and so on and the like. They’re one of society’s way with dealing with taboo. Indeed, this is why there are numerous ways in which to refer to someone’s death, without actually calling it so. Wikipedia, helpfully, lists expressions related to death and dying and there are quite a lot of them.

Medicine, as you might expect, is quite familiar with euphemisms. In 1947, a medic was commenting on the use euphemisms, suggesting that it is medical language that spares the patient’s feelings and shows them that the physician focuses on evidence. A similar sentiment is expressed almost 40 years later, when an editor prefers to see euphemisms as a sign of immaturity. This seems to be changing, though. In an article on the use of euphemisms in the case of heart failure, the authors write:

The choice of language, therefore, presents a dilemma for doctors. The term ‘heart failure’ may be in line with the current climate of openness but may evoke a more negative response from the patient. In contrast, a euphemism may be less open but more protective of the patient’s experience. This study suggests that the area of heart failure may be one where GPs may choose to compromise openness for the sake of the patient’s experience and that this fear of upsetting the patient is well founded.

In other words, the dilemma is between making me feel bad and me dying because I might not take my condition seriously enough. That’s quite a dilemma, I must admit. Surprisingly, it’s a dilemma which we, patients, seem to bring on the doctors. It seems, in fact, that euphemising medicine is something more and more common, as David Issacs, Stephen Isaacs and Dominic Fitzgerald suggest:

We propose the modern evolutionary medical euphemism as a new meme, to spread within the medical profession, of never being explicit when a more palatable alternative is available.

Quite in line with what, I think, happens, the three medics suggest the following for psychiatry:

Mental health professionals need help. People with Asperger syndrome are said to be on the spectrum, although isn’t the point of a spectrum that we are all on it? We propose renaming major depression as significant concavity, mood disorders as dispositional distinctions, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as ruminatory oscillations surfacing in yuletide (ROSY).

And so, we come suicidology. My recent post on suicide and agency could, of course, be re-framed into one on euphemisms. The removal of ‘commit’, with its rather negative connotations, insertion of ‘complete’, with its positive connotations, removal of agency by the use of ‘die’, now peaks into removal of ‘suicide’. It is so much more palatable to speak of ‘transformative struggle’ and not even suggest the word ‘suicide’.

And so, I start wondering, is this really where suicidology will be going? Suicidology will obliterate suicide itself, as it calls it something else, something like, ‘voluntary self-termination of life’, as was suggested by Prof. Piotr Stec in a tweet. It does sound so much better, doesn’t it?

But is this the point? You see, as much as euphemisms are about softening the language, sparing feelings and not causing offence or pain, they do one more thing. They also make the topic, in this case, suicide, more unpalatable, more taboo, more something that one should not mention. And here comes a paradox.

I cannot remember how many times over the last year or two, I have heard that ‘It is OK to talk’. It’s been nauseatingly frequent and syrupy, as it is obviously not OK to talk, as I have written before. If it were OK to talk, people would talk, but they don’t. Moreover, by this gradual elision of suicide and committing suicide from what is acceptable to say, ‘we’ also make the topic even more not-OK. It is even more unmentionable, it is even more removed into the realm of silence. If I cannot say I want to commit suicide, what is there to talk about for me? It is precisely the openness of channel and language, its brutal honesty that allows ‘me’ to talk. I don’t want to start thinking how I am going to broach the subject. I don’t want to dance around of what I really want to talk about. So, is it OK to talk? I so don’t think so.

Now, I want to finish with one more point, an argument which is frequently used suggesting why euphemisms are to be used. It is the second most irritating mantra, after ‘language matters’, I come by. It’s that ‘language shapes attitudes’. How I wish people stopped saying that. Every time I see the sentence ‘Language shapes attitudes’, I always think ‘Thank goodness for the psychologists/suicidologists/shrinks. They were not fooled!’.

If language shapes attitudes, how on earth were yours not shaped by ‘commit suicide’? How did you all manage to see right through the phrase? Is it only us, the minions whose attitudes are shaped by language? I think references to language shaping attitudes are patronising! It’s the elite who sees things clearly, the little sh..s like me need to be protected, as my attitude will be obviously shaped and we can’t allow that! Obviously, I cannot possibly think for myself.

Also, I wonder who gets to choose how attitudes should be shaped? On what basis? Yes, the statement that language shapes attitudes is also about power, the power to decide how ‘we’ should speak. And I reject that power, mostly because it is usurped. And so, I really wish you didn’t tell me what words I can, cannot, should or should not use.

Now, does it mean I reject euphemisms? Yes, but it’s because I think the question about euphemisms and words, and language and whatever else, is wrong. I think it is much better to ask the question about how to communicate sensitively, empathically, compassionately. The moment you ask such a question, half of the problems with the ‘language shapes attitudes’ vanish. Because compassion doesn’t mean banning a word or two. It’s about something else entirely, you know, like holding my hand. And I so wish, medicine, psychology, suicidology and all others stopped obsessing about words, and started obsessing about communicating. The problem is, however, that changing words is easy, changing the way you communicate is difficult.



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