Words Matter


Despite the richness and complexity of the English language it is endlessly changing. Some words have been ‘corrupted’ through people attaching a meaning that is false or misleading or shaped by the past.

I worked as an Employment Consultant for five years. Some of the people on my caseload had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and were taking antipsychotic medication. It was very challenging speaking to prospective employers where the job seeker had agreed to disclose their illness. It is difficult framing ‘schizophrenia’ in a positive light as it is a word which stirs up negative emotions. For many people ‘schizophrenia’ denotes a split personality which is not the case. It is in fact a complex brain disorder characterised by disruptions to thinking and emotions, and a distorted perception of reality.

Mental health users and professionals around the world have started calling for a change of the name, seeing it as stigmatising and harmful.

The psychiatrist, who assessed our son Adam, although hesitant, was leaning towards a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My internal response was to dismiss this suggestion as out of hand as Adam didn’t match the stereotype I had formed in my mind based on my contact with people who were being treated for schizophrenia. But was my reaction influenced by the stigma attached to the term? Was I fighting the thought that my son had a mental illness?

People with mental illness often experience stigma which alienates and gives rise to feelings of being different or abnormal. This also applies to people who are affected by suicide. Again it’s the terminology which shapes people’s thinking.

Suicide rates in Australia have remained at unacceptable levels with 2525 reported deaths in 2012 or about twice the national road toll. If we are to have a significant impact on suicide rates we need a revision of the language of suicide.

Despite a concerted effort over the past decade to limit the use of negatively associated language we still hear the media using the word ‘commit’ when talking about suicide. Suicide Prevention Advisor, Susan Beaton, highlights three historical uses of the word ‘commit’ which when linked with the word ‘suicide’ encourage stigma.

  1. Religious context: The word ‘commit’ is commonly used in connection with religious offences. For example, suicide is still considered a moral sin in some religious settings.
  2. Criminal context: In the past, suicide was a criminal act in many countries. As late as 1959, suicide was decriminalised in Victoria. Changes were made to the Crimes Act such that it was no longer a crime for a person to commit or to attempt to commit suicide.
  3. Mental illness context: The word ‘commit’ has been applied to the incarceration of people against their will in a mental institution.

The word ‘commit’ has negative connotations. It evokes images of illegality, crime, dishonour and guilt. We commit adultery, we commit murder and we commit treason but we need more exact and sensitive language to describe suicide. ‘He died by suicide’ or ‘She ended her life’ are less emotive and a more acceptable way of describing what is a tragic event.

If we get the language right, people and communities might be better able to talk about what amounts to a national tragedy, with openness and honesty.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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