Recently I read Jennifer Niven’s young adult novel, All the Bright Places, which deals with suicide and mental illness.
What I thought of the book
Overall, I loved it. And you can read my review of it over on my book blog. Fair warning: it’s one of my only not spoiler-free reviews. It’s a really good, mature-ish, YA (young adult) novel. It’s creative and fun, but also dark and serious.
The reason my review is not spoiler-free is because of the topic of this post. One of the characters dies by suicide, and his girlfriend, as a narrator, writes it as to “commit” suicide instead of “die by.”
You need some back story.
Before I get to some of the reasons why this nomenclature difference is important, I want to explain why I’m writing this post. A few years ago, the difference in wording was brought to my attention (not directly) by another mental health advocate in my sphere. It made complete sense to me, and since then, I have been vocally challenging anyone who uses “committed” instead of “died by.” And very often, people ask me why it matters. That made it clear to me that the phrasing needs more attention. This novel made that clear to me as well, as does any time I encounter “committed” instead of “died by” in reference to suicide.
First of all, I have never attempted suicide or seriously contemplated it. I do, however, experience intrusive thoughts related to suicide, which I talk to my counsellor about.
I have also had several experiences with a person in my sphere dying by suicide. Never a close friend or family member, but I don’t think that matters.
Please, if you are a person with more authority on this matter than I am, share your thoughts and challenge mine if they need to be.
So, why does this matter?
First, think about instances where we use the word “committed.” People are “committed” to institutions, like prisons or hospitals. Crimes are “committed.” Most often, we encounter this word with a negative connotation.
But suicide is not a crime. It is a tragedy.
“Died by” vs. “committed” suicide – the difference
Saying that a person committed suicide gives their passing the connotation of a crime. Which it is not. It is unfortunate. And terribly, terribly sad. It is heartbreaking. It hurts other people. But it is not a crime. And most times, it is not even a choice.
People who die by suicide are not criminals. They are not inherently bad. They’ve just lost the battle with a disorder, just like people who die from cancer or heart attack have lost the battle with a disease. I would argue that people who die by suicide are far closer to victims than they are criminals.
What I’m doing
Every time I encounter the phrase “commit/committed/commits suicide,” I challenge it. Vocally. And I invite you to as well.
The thing that I find most interesting is that in her afterword, Niven uses “died by suicide,” not “committed.” I wonder why she chose the other wording in the story. I wonder if perhaps she thought it would be more realistic for a teenager to not know the right wording. I don’t know.
But I do think that writers and bloggers and mental health advocates have a duty to treat mental health and stigma with care. Words are powerful. Don’t get me wrong, I think Niven does a very good job of this for 99% of her novel. But any time a person reads the word “committed” instead of “died by” before the word “suicide,” it teaches the reader, subconsciously or not, that that is the word you use. Conversely, the same can be said about choosing to write “died by.”
In a world where there is still so much stigma associated with mental illness, perpetuating as much health-centred, person-centred, and less-negative vocabulary is important.
Let’s work to end the stigma, and help people who suffer with various mental disorders and who experience suicidal ideation or thoughts of suicide.
Peace and love,