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Suicide Isn't a Crime Therefore You Cannot 'Commit' It

05/05/2013 22:23 BST | Updated 05/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Suicide was considered a criminal act until 1961 and yet over 50 years on we still use the word 'commit' to describe a suicide attempt...

Up until as recently as 1993 suicide was still considered a crime in the Republic of Ireland. Laws changed to eliminate the criminality of taking one's own life here in the UK in 1961, when the previous crime of 'self-murder' was abolished under The Suicide Act 1961. This is a shocking reminder of how misunderstandings around mental health embodied our cultures years ago and how there is still room for change in attitudes today.

The notion that an individual who found themselves in such an intense state of emotional turmoil that they decided to try and end their own lives could then be hauled in front of a court and imprisoned for their actions is impossible to comprehend. But in many cases, individuals who attempted suicide and survived were fined or sent to prison for a short sentence of up to six months. For example, when Lieutenant Geoffrey Walker attempted suicide on the beach in Dunkirk, using a French revolver he had found, he was prosecuted in June 1951 and fined £25 for his actions. Similarly, Lionel Churchill was found next to his wife who had recently passed away with a bullet wound in his forehead and he was promptly sent to prison with a six month sentence for 'attempted self murder'.

When a suicide attempt was fatal, the deceased were punished for the crime of 'self murder' by having their property confiscated from relatives and being denied the right to a proper burial. Medieval practice saw the body of the deceased be carried off and thrown into a pit in the dead of night, with a stake nailed through the heart to keep it in place. In the Middle Ages, entire families of grieving relatives could lose their livelihood and be forced into poverty if the breadwinning male took his own life. Stigma overshadowed suicide back then and the impact of this is still been seen day, as the Samaritans' latest report shows one in three people would be afraid of talking about suicidal feelings.

But despite the fact that suicide was decriminalised here in England and Wales in 1961, we use the term 'commit' to refer to the act. The phrase 'commit suicide' denotes that a sin or a crime has been participated in; we use the term 'commit' to refer to homicide, adultery or assault. In addition, religious bodies use the term 'commit' to refer to a sin. The word suggests that the individual was making a rational decision whereas modern psychology and medicine suggests that suicidal individuals have a diminished ability to make rational decisions.

Based on medieval attitudes towards suicide which persisted until recently, using the word 'commit' does nothing to recognise the pain that an individual was going through before they took their own lives. Instead, suicide remains a taboo issue and the connotation of illegality and shamefulness adds to the stigma and grief felt by the deceased's family and friends. For anybody contesting this, I recommend they look at the blog post entitled 'Please stop saying committed suicide' on 'Walking 18 miles in my brother's memory. At a time when they are most in need of human understanding, bereaved families are fighting against a residual language barrier implying that their relative is in some way flawed or immoral.

Instead, if we shifted our speech and instead used the word 'completed' suicide to refer to a fatal attempt and 'attempted' suicide to refer the act of trying to take one's own life we would eradicate any connotations of criminality, shame or sin. Not everyone knows that suicide used to be illegal and this may explain why the phrase 'commit suicide' is still in use today. However, it is no excuse not to start changing our language now.

A simple switch of one word to another could mark the beginning of more informed public attitudes towards suicide and the history of mental health, and make it easier for bereaved families to seek the help they so desperately are in need of.