How to speak about suicide. A non-guide

For some time now, I have objected to guides how to talk about suicide. I keep repeating that banning the word ‘commit’ makes little sense and has consequences that are not considered by the guideline authors. Today I want to change my perspective. Today I want to write my non-guiding guide to the ‘language of suicide’.

I have said so many times that language guides make no sense (here is my last post on language and suicide) that my ‘guide’ will not be a prescription for how to speak. Rather, I want to suggest that there are a number of linguistic (as well as non-linguistic) issues that should be considered. They are important because if there is a ‘language of suicide’ (which I tend to doubt), it involves ‘a way a speaking’ and not only a number of words which are or are not used.

For starters, I suggest that there are at least three aspects of the situation of suicide that should be considered. First, it’s the act itself, that is to say, the death was self-inflicted. What should the act be called? Second, suicide is completed by a concrete person. How should ‘we’ refer to a person who commits suicide? Third, for an act to be considered suicide, it must be intended as such, the person must have wanted to do it, it cannot, for example, have been an accident. Should this intention be conveyed when we talk about suicide? The discussion below is based in part on Justyna Ziolkowska and my paper on representations of fatherly suicide.

1. The act. The issue is seemingly simple, and yet, there is perhaps a decision to be made whether a suicide is referred to with the use of the word ‘suicide’. Do we, for example, prefer the verbal construction ‘kill oneself’. There are many discussions about the stigma related to suicide, one could argue therefore that the word itself should not be used at all.

It is perhaps worth saying that adult children of fathers who had killed themselves avoided speaking of suicide. They talked using more general words such as, for example, ‘the act’. Even though such words are ambiguous, contextually, it was  clear what they referred to. Through this, it could be argued, they discursively deleted suicide and their fathers hadn’t committed it.

There is another aspect of suicide construction, mostly rendered by discussions on such verbs as ‘commit’ (see one of my posts on the verb: ‘Committing to commit‘). Is it more important to render it in negative terms? Or perhaps the act should be rendered ‘neutral’, as could be rendered by verbs such as ‘to suicide’ (admittedly, it is a neologism, but, in my view, a very apt one) or perhaps ‘complete’.

The final issue here for me is one of communication about suicide. So, is it OK to say that it is OK to talk? Should suicide be constructed as ‘talkable’ about? Is the channel really open?

2. The person. Again, at face value the issue is quite simple. Also, I have never come across an argument that a person who committed suicide should not be referred to or that suicide should be depersonalised into an act that simply ‘occurs’. There are two issues here.

First, how to refer to the person who killed themselves. Our informants avoided referring to their fathers as fathers. They spoke, for example, of ‘men’, again using more general and ambiguous terms (clear in context). How therefore should we refer to people who killed themselves?  What identities should we give them? Should they be only men or women, or can we also talk about fathers/mothers or husband/wives?

The second issue is not lexical, but also grammatical. Is it better to refer to suicide through agentive forms, such as ‘A + verb + suicide’, for example ‘He committed suicide’, or should we prefer more indirect ways, such as the passive voice, as in ‘Suicide has been committed by A’ or even ‘Suicide has been committed’, deleting the person from the form of the sentence altogether. Such considerations are perhaps not so important for individual people, yet, they might be significant for media reports.

3. Intention. This is perhaps the most complex of the dimensions considered here. Let me start by saying that our informants constructed their fathers’ suicide as non-intentional. For example, they ascribed responsibility to their mental illness or addiction. Intention was linguistically backgrounded. And so, we have the third aspect of ‘language of suicide’ – how to position the person’s intention, agency or responsibility. I’ve written about it in a number of posts, and most particularly in the one on suicide and agency.

In my view, it is the discussion on agency and intention which should replace all the discussions about the verb ‘commit’ or the phrase ‘die by suicide’, as more or less unwittingly, proponents of a ban on ‘commit’ also remove the agency of the person who kills themselves.

And so, the question to be asked, in my view, is how the person’s agency is to be rendered. Do ‘we’ speak rendering the agency (and through this – responsibility) in committing suicide or not. And so, should the act be rendered by clauses with transitive verbs, explicitly constructing the person an unfettered agent. The verbs such as ‘commit’, ‘complete’, or perhaps ‘suicide’, ‘kill oneself’ would convey the person’s agency and intention to kill themselves. On the other hand, expressions such as ‘die by suicide’ or ‘die of suicide’ remove the agency. They also remove the intention to kill oneself.

But, perhaps, as our informants, we should go even further and ascribe agency to something else. We could say that depression killed a person, or is responsible for suicide, or, less radically, made a person kill themselves. In such a way, not only is the person’s intention deleted, but also suicide could be turned into something else entirely.

In my previous posts, I have made it clear what my linguistic choices are, but regardless of what I think, there should be a discussion on what is important in representing/constructing suicide.

Now, it’s important to stress that the discussion I am suggesting, despite appearances, is not primarily linguistic. For example, the discussion on the use of ‘commit’ is really about the stigma attached to suicide, the significance of this stigma, together with how negatively suicide should be rendered. These are social and political issues and not linguistic ones. Language is used mostly to render the views of those who have a stake in representing suicide. Language, of course, offers much nuance in such representations, but the issue is not primarily linguistic.

My final comment is about the discussions so far. They focus on a couple of words, as if these were the issues that defined the ‘language of suicide’. Judging by how our informants spoke, these discussions are quite off their narrative priorities. Yes, our interviews were in Polish with some linguistic idiosyncrasies, still, the informants’ narrative choices clearly suggested there are some pressure points in the stories of suicide. And yet, suicidology and suicide prevention focus on a couple of words, rather uninterested in the narrative priorities of those who have a stake in such narratives.

I recently wrote that ‘we’ persuaded people that focusing on a number of words is important. So, ‘we’ all started saying that language matters. And yet, it turns out that when you simply listen to people, you discover what ‘language matters’ means to them and that it might mean something very different from what it means to us.

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