Suicide used to be illegal
The term committed suicide is something we’ve all heard and probably never really questioned before. But it’s a big indicator of the shame that’s always been placed on those that have taken their own lives, and their families and friends.
The word commit is almost always linked with illegal or perceived morally wrong actions – committing a crime, committing adultery and committing arson are all examples of this. So why the term ‘commit suicide’?
Put simply, because up until 1961 suicide was a crime in the UK. And as such, suicide was something people learned to be ashamed of. This goes some way to explaining how the tradition of silence around suicide and bereavement began.
While suicide was decriminalised (stopped being illegal) in 1961, the turn of phrase is still pretty common. At CALM we try not to use ‘commit suicide’, instead using died by suicide, took their own lives or lost to suicide. With this small shift in language, we’re able to take away some of the shame and judgement that’s been attached to suicide for hundreds of years. We try not to police how other people speak – if you’ve lost someone to suicide, the last thing you want to think of is whether the words you’re using are ‘correct’, but if we get a choice we opt to avoid the term.
Suicide is painful
Another thing that makes suicide so difficult to talk about are the difficult emotions associated with it. Those who are bereaved by suicide have to grapple with things that other people might not – feelings of anger, blame, even relief. At CALM, we believe that talking about suicide allows people to learn a language to talk about it – which is why we’ll never shy away from talking about suicide when it matters.
Suicide in the media
Suicide isn’t a storyline, it’s a real thing that takes the life of 125 people every week. However, suicide is often painted in a dangerous and damaging way in the media. Whether it’s the story arch of a TV series, or a stock image of a sad man in the shadows, suicide is often depicted in a dark and scary way, which can make it harder to talk about and understand.
People who take their own lives are normal people going through tough times, but when we regularly see suicide depicted in extremes, it can make us think otherwise and dehumanise those who are struggling.
That’s not to say that the media doesn’t have a huge role to play in helping people to understand and, ultimately, preventing suicide. It does. CALM regularly works across the media to raise awareness of suicide and the issues that surround it – whether that’s on national television, partnerships with streaming services or working with the press.
Normalising conversations around suicide and the support services available can have a huge impact on how many people seek help when they’re struggling. In fact, it’s proven that engaging with stories that articulate what it feels like to have and move past suicidal thoughts can help people experiencing them and even prevent them taking their own lives.
If you’re a media organisation or are covering suicide in your work, take a look at these media guidelines on suicide or get in touch to talk about collaborating with CALM here.