Recently, a pregnant student at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology was run over by a moving train. In a suicide note left to her family, the 19-year-old wrote that she had decided to end her life after her boyfriend, who revealed that he was married, disowned her pregnancy. This unfortunate incident took place not long after another student from Midlands State University, also a Zimbabwean institution, hung himself. The phenomenon is common across the African continent, and there are frequent reports of suicide in the media.
Studies and reports suggest that men die by suicide more often than any other demographic. These realities need to be addressed. Conversations on suicide are particularly pertinent considering that November is an important month for raising awareness of men’s health issues, such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s suicide. This article, however, looks at the issue holistically as it affects both men and women of all ages.
According to the World Health Organisation, close to 800 000 people kill themselves every year. Many more are believed to attempt to kill themselves, while others contemplate suicide, even if they do not act on their thoughts. The organisation goes on to report that 79% of these suicides take place in low to middle-income countries.
While there is a correlation between suicide and mental illnesses, it is important to remember that the latter is not always the reason for the former. Suicide, which is as much a political issue as it is a social issue, can occur in a moment of existential crisis.
Despite the sheer numbers, suicide continues to be a contentious issue in our society. Our language and approach to it perpetuates the damaging stigma attached to it. This stigma has long been the reason why many resort to suffering – and dying – in silence.
As Jessica Ravitz aptly put it, “Our words matter to those struggling with thoughts of ending their own lives and to those reeling from loss owing to suicide. And in a world where silence or insensitivity often makes matters worse, it’s time to talk about our language.”
Here are some of the things we need to stop saying about suicide if we want to end this stigma and ensure that more people can be open about their struggles and (hopefully) access the help they need.
Someone “committed” suicide
So many people have written articles explaining why we ought to stop using the “c” word. While some are learning to drop this judgmental word from their vocabulary, many continue to use it. It is more worrying when publications use the term, given the amount of influence they have in directing the conversations we have and the language we use.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “to commit” is “to perpetrate or carry out a crime, sinful or immoral act”. It follows that when we refer to someone as having “committed” suicide, we insinuate that they carried out a crime or sinful action. Such language, which is directly influenced by religion and culture, is condemnatory and does not help make it safer for people to talk about their struggles or intentions.
Therefore, it behoves us to think about and use alternative and more sensitive language that does not continue to stigmatise the act of suicide. You might be wondering, what should we say instead? Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide awareness activist, suggests “more objective phrasing” and this includes using such phrases as:
- Someone took or ended their life
- Someone died by suicide
- Someone ended their pain
The last phrase stands out most because it shows that we understand the reason that someone would have killed themselves. This ability to empathise is very important. People are more inclined to talk when they know they will not be guilt-tripped into abandoning any thoughts of ending their lives.
Only God can take away life
This insinuates that suicide is a sin. That is exactly what 15-year-old me was told as I lay in a hospital bed, recovering from an attempted suicide. I was advised by an overly religious family member to “pray and ask for forgiveness”.
Neel Burton, in his article Can It Be Right to Commit Suicide?, cites that “the Roman Catholic Church has long argued that one’s life is the property of God and that to commit suicide is to deride God’s prerogatives”. Burton adds that this common belief is not shared by all religious adherents as there are some who believe the act of killing oneself is, in certain instances, honourable.
While religious people have a right to hold onto such beliefs, it must be reiterated that not everyone believes in the existence of a deity. Therefore, saying only a deity can take away life will not prevent a non-believer from carrying out the act.
In fact, saying only God can take away life tends to do more harm than good. It makes light of the pain an individual may be going through or may have gone through until their death. It scares a person out of ending their life so as to avoid offending their God. This induced fear adds greater emotional weight and pressure – certainly not a healthy suicide prevention strategy.
If God can take away life, surely he can also take away pain. Why doesn’t he? Food for thought!
Suicide is not an option
I get it. We all try to say whatever we can to prevent suicide. However, we tend to go about it the wrong way. Telling someone that “suicide is not an option” simply shows our unwillingness or inability to empathise with the individual.
Telling someone that suicide is not an option is also an incomplete intervention. What are the options? Are they easily accessed by everyone? Will they improve the well-being of the individual?
Is it perhaps because of our belief in the sanctity of life or an inherent fear of death itself that we even say this?
Suicide is selfish
When I first attempted to end my life, the adults around me made it clear that suicide was a selfish act. My mother’s sister even went ahead and told me not to be a burden on my mother, what with her already having the huge responsibility of being an unemployed widow with eight children, four of whom still needed to finish school.
It was clear that my mother’s pain took precedence over my pain, which I wanted to end through death. The events that brought about that pain were not important. I was simply being selfish.
The irony in this statement is that those who say it are oblivious to the selfishness embedded in the sentiments. It can be construed that we simply do not want to be inconvenienced by the death or pain of another person. We may also label someone selfish for wanting to kill themselves because we are focused on the role they play in our lives, which they will no longer play after their death.
Again, some people who say this almost never do anything to make life better or lighter for the person facing challenges and struggling with suicidal thoughts. In fact, they make it hard for anyone to even open up about their struggles.
Another thought: We are all going to die eventually. The pain of losing someone is inevitable. This truth further discredits our claim that suicide is selfish and only serves to pass on pain to loved ones.
Suicide is a cowardly act
Contrary to this long-held belief, suicide is far from being a cowardly act. An individual may decide to end their life after enduring pain for a very long time. Does that make them a coward? No! Someone may, on the spur of the moment, take their own life because a crisis has left them at their wit’s end. Is that person a coward? Hell, no!
The thing is, many of us are so afraid of death that we place such value on being alive, however miserable our existence may be. We place such value on the ability to remain alive that we cannot even fathom anyone wanting to cease existing.
Considering our existential fears, the very act of killing oneself is a very courageous one. It is even more courageous in the face of the belief that only the deities can take away one’s life. I mean, one has to be ballsy to dare stir up the ire of the gods.
Lastly, our reactions to suicide are often steeped in our fear of death or privilege. In both judgmental instances, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to understand other people’s struggles. When we fail to understand this, we render ourselves incapable of fully supporting others and (hopefully) preventing suicide.
As Stacy Freedenthal notes in her article Language Matters: Committed Suicide vs. Completed Suicide vs. Died by Suicide, “If changing our language can help suicidal people to feel safer asking for help, then changing language can save lives.”