The Language of Suicide
Have you ever noticed how while conversing about suicide, people are at loss of words, often unaware about the appropriate ways to initiate the topic or simply engage in it mindlessly, using vocabulary which disregards the cause? Due to the lack of knowledge about the suitable way of approaching the cause yet engaging in it just for the sake of it, by using language which overlooks its importance does not do justice to its core value. We live in a country that is surrounded by stigma and stereotypes whenever the discussions related to mental health are held. Amongst this, for years suicide has survived as a tabooed topic which presumably shouldn’t be addressed due to the shame our society has managed to attach to it. To blame it entirely upon people wouldn’t be fair either, since until 2017 suicide was a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code 309 which states,
Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.
However, the Mental Health Act 2017 in its section 115, has a provision that makes the above law redundant,
Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.
It becomes important to acknowledge the words we use when we try to hold meaningful conversations about something which has always been so sensitive and controversial in the Indian communities. The taboo which surrounds suicide does not only emerge from the stigma attached to it but also stems from the reason that the awareness of decriminalisation of it is still in the shambles. Hence, the language we use to address the cause plays an important role as a consequence. When we speak in terms of law, we use the terms like, ‘a crime is committed by a felon’, and therefore there is a dire need to be sensitive and avoid using the word ‘commit’ when we are speaking or reporting about a suicide.
Mental health professionals worldwide are trying to spread awareness regarding how to hold conversations about the same; we should always say ‘died of suicide’, instead of acknowledging it as a crime, sin or a mistake which is committed. Similarly, when we speak up about an individual who has died by suicide or has attempted it, we should refrain from using the term ‘successful attempt’ or ‘unsuccessful attempt’, because ‘success’ is used for positivity which isn’t the case here, instead the terminology should be ‘suicide death’ or ‘suicide attempt’. The need for this arises because a person who has died of suicide or attempted it shouldn’t be considered a culprit as suicide in itself is not a criminal offence. Due to lack of awareness, people live under the rock of oblivion where it is hard for them to grasp as to how can someone take such a huge measure. In order to understand this, we need to have an open mind which allows us to accept the reality of mental illnesses, and the grave issue about how it is just as important as physical illnesses.
When we ‘accuse’ someone of ‘committing’ a crime, we are aware that the person has made a choice to enact against the law. However, to understand suicide, we need to acknowledge how a patient with unipolar or bipolar depression can have suicidal ideations as a symptom, fairly recognised by the DSM-5, APA (2013) and ICD-11, WHO (2018). This is just a mere example of a disorder, however, there are certainly more psychological illnesses which can lead to suicide. Apart from this, socio-economic conditions of a person can also lead to instability of mental health, and therefore lead to an impulsive suicide or suicide attempt. To simplify, suicide or suicidal ideations can be symptom of a health condition, and to keep it in a light where it is blamed upon the individual means disregarding the role their symptoms play, hence overlooking the dynamics of mental health.
A person living with suicidal thoughts and behaviour is undergoing severe stress and in need of psychological help. Often their cry for help is ignored under the myth that just because they are able to discuss their suicidal thoughts, they are not going to act upon it. While the importance of mental health is being promoted regularly, there is a need to normalise reaching out behaviour.
In her article “Language matters: Why we don’t say committed suicide”, Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas sheds light on the most common argument against people who die by suicide – the accusation of ‘choice’, that it was a will of the person to take this action. Addressing that suicidal thoughts and behaviours can be a result of a mental illness or a mental health conflict, the individual who is in excruciating emotional pain does not operate from a rational mind. Their ability to use logic and reason with themselves is decreased, and they do not have the competence of generating an alternative. Hence, to mark this decision as a choice would be a misinterpretation of actions.
With the negligence of people’s attitudes towards mental illnesses and the taboo that surrounds our society, it shouldn’t come as a surprise but the rates of suicide in India are extremely alarming. According to a WHO (2016) report, India has highest rate of suicides in the South-East Asian region with 16.5 suicides per 100,000 people. In the year 2018 the number of suicides reported in the country were 134,516, which indicated an increase of 3.6% in comparison to 2017, with an increase rate of 0.3. According to a public database maintained by Aman (Assistant Professor of Legal Practice at Jindal Global School of Law), Kanika Sharma (PhD student at Emory University), Krushna (PhD student at Syracuse University) and Thejesh GN (Public Interest Technologist), during COVID-19 lockdown, India has seen more than 300 cases of suicide.
One suicide that left the entire nation in shock was the passing away of the bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which has now turned into a controversial murder case. However, there are certain things which need to be brought in light about how it was reported by the media on the day it happened. Indian journalism is a vast industry, however, most of the adult audience caters to the television and print news which presented the death of actor with utmost insensitivity. When we talk about language of suicide, it is important to realise how the lack of mental health literacy plays a role in it. However, it is the responsibility of the media that as news presenters of this country they should be able to guide people towards awareness instead of misguiding them. SSR, who allegedly died of suicide, was reported by media with rhyming mockery of his past career movies and descriptions about his death were shared – clearly disregarding the guidelines issued by WHO about how to report a suicide of a celebrity with caution.
Press Council of India has a Norm of Journalistic Conduct (2019) which guides the reporters from using certain patterns while reporting a suicide case. Indian journalism, however, has majorly failed to follow this, massively indulging in usage of derogatory language while providing explicit details which instead of bringing people awareness rather stigmatises the topic of suicide even further. While Indian journalism is one part of the problem, social media plays another role altogether. Millennials have found a way to make use of internet to spread awareness, yet the bitter truth remains that there’s a dark side of it which has been the downfall of all the efforts. To take the recent example itself, there are sensitive details, photographs and misinterpreted language all over social media platforms where the death of Sushant Singh Rajput is concerned. Under Mental Health Act (2017) these should not be public information under the section of right to confidentiality.
To understand why is there a need for such norms and sections that everyone should abide by, we need to accept that the information related to suicide is sensitive. It can act as a provocation for someone who is struggling with mental health conflicts, and often also lead to Werther Effect. This states that there can be multiple people who die by suicide after a media coverage of suicide, or through news exposure of a family member or a friend who has died by suicide. Therefore, media should be careful with the language they are using while reporting it because they also imprint the minds of public and help them shape their opinions, which can lead to either sensitivity towards suicide or reinforce the stereotypes.
Social media after death of a celebrity by suicide becomes a place where every person preaches safe space and kindness, promoting mental health. The cruel and harsh reality of this is that the same is forgotten within mere days or weeks wherein the same person with or without the intention and knowledge can indulge in cyber bullying of others. It is important to preach kindness but above that, the practice of it matters more. There are a lot of stressors which surround us, especially during this pandemic, therefore, it is advisable to be always mindful of the language we use, especially in the matters of suicide and mental health.
It is a common myth amongst everyone that a person who has suicidal thoughts and behaviour cannot be saved, which is far from the truth. A lot of people can be prevented from death by suicide if they are provided with the needed intervention. Our country does not have a national suicide helpline number, however, there are upcoming reliable local helplines and suicide prevention platforms which are taking measures to help reduce the number of deaths by suicide in the nation. There are various battles which have been fought and some have been won where India is concerned with suicide. Decriminalisation of suicide was a success achieved after years, but there is a long way to de-stigmatise it from the minds of people.