Why The Phrase “Commit Suicide” Isn’t The Right Way To Talk About Suicide

by Rory Gory | updated by John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com

There are many stigmas and misconceptions surrounding mental illness, but it’s quite common to experience it. Nearly one in five US adults live with a mental illness, translating to about 46.6 million people as of 2017. Whether or not you live with a mental illness, mental health is something that all of us navigate. But often, we struggle to find the right words to talk about our mental health honestly.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as shelter-in-place ordinances affecting many people in the US and globally, have created a widespread sense of uncertainty and stress. Anxiety and depression rates have been rising across the country, and vulnerable populations, such as LGBTQ youth, are at especially high risk for poor mental health outcomes.

Now more than ever, knowing how to talk about mental health and suicide will allow us to support each other through this difficult time—and learning about how we should talk about mental health and illness is a pivotal place to start. That’s why, for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September, The Trevor Project and Dictionary.com have updated our article that helps outline compassionate and important ways we all can discuss mental illness, especially suicide.

This update also coincides and aligns with major revisions to how Dictionary.com defines and refers to suicide across all its entries, one part of a larger effort the dictionary implemented to better reflect and respect how language is evolving on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality—and yes, physical and mental health.

Learn more about these sweeping changes its article “Dictionary.com Releases Its Biggest Update Ever.”

Content warning: this article deals with the sensitive topic of suicide. If you (or someone you know) need support, call the toll-free, 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text HOME to 741741 for free, which offers 24/7 support from the Crisis Text Line. LGBTQ youth can contact The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678-678.

Why commit suicide and other problematic words are harmful

Talking about suicide is an important step in suicide prevention, but depending on how we talk about mental health, we may contribute to the stigma.

For example, the word crazy is often used as an adjective for anything bizarre, disruptive, or unbelievable. Similar words like insane, deranged, delusional, or neurotic are also used as jokes or insults. Associating mental health issues with unrelated negative experiences and outcomes reinforces stereotypes about mental illness, making it more difficult to talk honestly about mental health issues or to reach out for help if you’re experiencing mental illness.

Similarly, the expression committed suicide is considered problematic, as it implies the act of suicide is a crime (as it historically has been) or a sin (in religion). The verb commit deepens the emotional pain surrounding this sensitive but important subject—thickening the barriers to talking openly about it. Now that we approach mental illness just as that, as an illness, rather than a moral failing, mental health experts and suicide prevention specialists recommend using the phrase, died by suicide. Just as someone can die of heart disease, using the phrase to die by suicide allows us to communicate more compassionately—and accurately—about those who have passed.

Destigmatizing suicide on Dictionary.com

In line with expert recommendations and the significant, more sensitive ways the language surrounding mental health has evolved, Dictionary.com has replaced all instances of commit suicide with die by suicide or end one’s life, changes that have improved nearly 20 entries across its site. The dictionary now defines suicide, the verb, as “to intentionally end one’s own life; to die by suicide.” It includes an extensive, informative Sensitive Language Note about the word suicide on the word’s definition page.

The topic of suicide has also problematically surfaced in some less obvious places. For instance, Dictionary.com formerly defined poison pill as “a pellet of a quick-acting poison, as cyanide, for a spy to carry in order to commit suicide when faced with capture or torture.” Now, the dictionary provides the following, much more sensitive definition: “a pellet or capsule of a quick-acting poison, as cyanide, for a spy to ingest when faced with capture or torture.”

Previously, Dictionary.com had defined felo-de-se as “a person who commits suicide or commits an unlawful malicious act resulting in his or her own death.” The better, updated definition now reads: “a person who intentionally takes his or her own life, or commits an unlawful malicious act resulting in his or her own death.” The entry for kwaiken has also eliminated the phrase “commit suicide,” instead glossing this term as “a curved dagger formerly used by Japanese women in ceremonial suicide.”

For most people, felo-de-se and kwaiken are fairly obscure words, but they do illustrate just how insidious the construction “commit suicide” has historically been in the English language—and further underscore the urgency in making those revisions.

How do you start a conversation about mental health?

The more we normalize having conversations about our feelings, the easier it becomes to talk about mental health. Proactively starting conversations about mental health also means that we can address problems, notice warning signs for suicide, and find help before a crisis, rather than after. Conversations about our mental health allow us to both give and receive support during this challenging time.

You don’t have to be a trained psychologist or crisis counselor to have conversations with your friends or loved ones about mental health. Try these simple methods for communicating your feelings and talking to others about what they’re going through:

  • Adopt a nonjudgmental and open-minded attitude
  • Show you care by listening actively, without interrupting or giving advice unless prompted
  • Ask open-ended questions instead of “yes”-or-“no” questions to keep the conversation going
  • Validate the feelings of the other person; it’s OK to not be OK, and sometimes just holding space for another to express themselves can be deeply comforting

If you need more inspiration, the “Seize the Awkward” campaign, created by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Jed Foundation, and the Ad Council, offers great tips for talking about mental health, including a campus toolkit and campaign resources.

How to help someone who is suicidal

There is a common fear that if you mention the word suicide in conversation with someone, you’ll “put ideas into their head.” In truth, talking about suicide is one of the key steps to preventing it.

If you notice a friend or loved one expressing warning signs of suicide, it’s important to ask them about it directly. It’s OK to talk about suicide, and doing so will not cause suicidal feelings in someone who is not experiencing thoughts of suicide (known as suicidal ideation). Rather, talking about suicide can actually help others who are experiencing suicidal ideation feel comfortable sharing what they are going through.

Suicide does not have one single cause, but warning signs that someone might be in crisis can include the words they use in conversation. Take note if they are talking about death, or being a burden to others, or feeling hopeless. If you’re concerned about a loved one, check out this extensive list of warning signs and risk factors from SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education).

At The Trevor Project, we recommend responding to the warning signs of suicide by following the steps represented by the acronym C-A-R-E:

  1. Connect with the person you’re concerned about. Listen to their feelings and take them seriously.
  2. Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide.
  3. If they say yes, Respond by putting their safety first. Connect them to resources and contact trusted friends and family members.
  4. Empower the person to reach out for help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, The Trevor Project, or their doctor or therapist.

Best practices for sharing stories about suicide

While it’s important that we talk about suicide and mental health in order to destigmatize mental illness, there are moments when sharing explicit stories about suicide can cause more harm than good. This is especially important to take into account when sharing on the internet, because anyone can develop a platform or influence a large audience if they go viral.

When public figures die by suicide, social media feeds may be filled with breaking news about their death, and many of the shared articles can include stigmatizing language, misleading narratives, or triggering content. Research has found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals, depending on the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage, as well as whether the coverage uses dramatic or graphic headlines or images that sensationalize or glamorize a death.

You can help create safer online communities and prevent suicides by following the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, which were developed by experts in suicide prevention, public health, and journalism. Some leading recommendations include:

  • Avoid sharing articles with sensational headlines or that attribute suicide to a single cause
  • Make sure the content you’re sharing doesn’t glamorize depression, mental illness, or suicide
  • Never share explicit descriptions of suicide, photos, or suicide notes

If you want to talk about suicide online, you can preface your post with a trigger or content warning. Refer to bloggingonsuicide.org for best practices for sharing a personal story about suicide and mental health.

We rarely hear stories of resiliency, so consider sharing how you were able to find support or recount what has helped you get through difficult times. It can be helpful to add resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The Trevor Project on your posts for anyone who may not know where to find help.

Sometimes, friends, loved ones, and even people we don’t personally know will share upsetting or difficult content online, which may include warning signs for suicide. If you know the person posting, it’s best to reach out to them directly in a private message, by calling, or in person. Let them know you noticed what they posted, and wanted to check in and see how they’re doing. Follow the C-A-R-E acronym to talk about what they might be going through. Remember, you never have to be alone when helping someone in crisis, and you can always enlist friends and family to help, too.

If you don’t know the person or are unable to talk to them directly, many social platforms have ways to report triggering content and to connect users who may be struggling with mental health resources, such as on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. You can also refer to the #chatsafe guidelines for talking about suicide online, developed by Orygen, the Jed Foundation, and the Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Why is self-care important, too?

During these unprecedented times, it’s important to check in with your loved ones about their mental health, and it’s also important to check in with yourself. Sometimes those providing help need help, too. Recognizing your own needs and advocating for them, opening up about what you’re going through, and reaching out for help are all ways you can practice self-care.

The more we model better mental health conversations online and in person, the less difficult it will be to ask for help when we need it.


Rory Gory is the Digital Marketing Manager for The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, reach out to The Trevor Project for support at: thetrevorproject.org/help.

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