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Why I changed how I write and think about suicide

Why I changed how I write and think about suicide

Picture of Sara Arthurs
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I used the phrase “commit suicide” for more than a decade when I wrote about the topic, as recently as 2015. But around that time, I started hearing from mental health advocates and professionals who asked that I instead use other phrasing, such as “died by suicide.” That year, the Associated Press changed its Stylebook as well, encouraging reporters to avoid the word “commit” when covering suicide.

At the time, the Columbia Journalism Review one of the Stylebook editors, David Minthorn, about the 2015 Stylebook.

“Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact laws against suicide have been repealed in the US, at least in certain states, and many other places,” Minthorn told CJR, “so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”

Three years later, many journalists and the public have yet to embrace the shift in language. Some reporters and editors use “committed” simply because they always have. And different publications have their own style, of course.

As recently as Sept. 12, The Washington Post ran the headline: “High school football coach head-butted student, told another to commit suicide, report says.”

After the deaths in June of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there was a wide variety in the way different news outlets phrased their suicides.

The day of Bourdain’s death, the AP Stylebook tweeted out a reminder not to use the phrase as “The verb ‘commit’ with ‘suicide’ can imply a criminal act.” (The AP also noted that suicide stories should not go into detail on methods used.) Alternatives recommended by the AP Stylebook in an earlier tweet, in May 2017, include “killed himself,” “took her own life” or “died by suicide”.

One of the people who informed my own thinking on this is Ellyn Schmiesing, executive director of Focus, a nonprofit recovery center led by and dedicated to helping people with mental health, substance abuse or trauma issues in Findlay, Ohio, where I’m a reporter. Her preference is “died by suicide.”

Schmiesing said the change is relatively new, and even many professionals still say “committed,” but that it’s more sensitive to avoid that word. Like the AP, she noted that people “commit” a crime, or a sin. She said several people who have lost loved ones have told her that changing the language helped immensely in their healing, creating less of a sense of guilt and shame, and making it easier to talk about their loss.

My own thinking changed when I learned from our county’s 2015 Community Health Assessment that 4 percent of adults had considered attempting suicide in the past year. (The CDC reported similar national figures; in both cases, the figure for teens is higher.)

Four percent. I started doing the math – that’s one in 25 adults, and we all know 25 adults. That’s thousands of people even in my relatively small community. Many of whom are now doing better. But society doesn’t talk about their recovery either, as the topic as a whole is still so very taboo.

The fact that AP Style says I shouldn’t say “commit” is a good enough reason for outlets who follow the stylebook. But it’s also made me more reflective and sensitive as as a writer. I stopped to think about word choice in this way in a recent story, about two local veterans who had died after struggles with PTSD. Before, I might’ve used the phrase “commit suicide” in writing about their deaths. Instead, I wrote:

“Ben had talked about suicide when his father was driving him back to Chicago on Easter weekend 2016. Hovest asked about the drinking, and Ben replied that he had to drink: ‘Otherwise I can't sleep. The demons’ would just keep coming.

He was 34 when he died June 5, 2016.

Within a month, another veteran in Ottawa also took his own life, Hovest said.”

The point isn’t that the media should avoid talking about suicide. As the growing numbers suggest, society as a whole needs to grapple with this issue now more than ever. But as journalists, we can set an example for our communities by being more thoughtful in how we talk about it.

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