“Completed Suicide”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about the use of a new way of referring to suicide:

I came across “completed suicide” repeatedly in an article by the Mental Health of America Board of directors that used this phrase repeatedly in their petition to have President Obama send letters of condolence to family of service members that have committed suicide.  Is “completed suicide” correct? I have heard of committed suicide and attempted suicide, but not “completed suicide.” What’s your take?  

My take is that, outside its valid use in medical literature, the expression “completed suicide” is being used as a euphemism by people who feel there’s more of a stigma attached to saying that someone “committed suicide.”

In a post at Common Sense Journalism, Doug Fisher says that he asked several copy editors what they thought of the term and found that “the reaction was almost uniformly negative” regarding its use. His post includes a comment by Pam Wood, chief copy editor of the American Medical News, in which she explains the medical use of the term.

In a non-technical context, “completed suicide” is redundant. Suicide is a word like murder; the single word says it all. There can be nothing incomplete about a suicide. It is an accomplished act. One can speak of “a failed suicide attempt.” Once the act has been committed, it’s a suicide.

Trying to soften the anguish of a family member who has lost a child or spouse to suicide is understandable. Support groups can be excused for using the term “completed suicide” if they think that it will make their members feel better.

Professional journalists probably ought to go ahead and say that someone has committed suicide.

Besides, over time, euphemisms have a way of becoming just as harsh as the original expression.

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23 Responses to ““Completed Suicide””

  • Ane Romero

    Actually the term, “commit” derives from a negative connotation related to crime. In 399 B.C. Plato noted that, “suicide is committing a crime against oneself.” The term commit is linked to other terms such as you commit a crime, you commit a sin etc. and we cannot forget that suicide was viewed as a crime (felony) if attempted and or completed. This meant that if someone died by suicide then their property could be seized and/or their debts would be transferred to their family. It is important to remember that words matter and just as we would never say someone committed cancer or committed a stroke, we should not use this when talking about suicide–as it is part of mental illess, which is an illness of the brain. To dismiss using the correct terminology is to dismiss the work being made to de-stigmatize mental illness and change the way that individuals view mental health and accessing treatment. Just because the term “commit” is what has been used in the past, does not make it okay, especially knowing the root of the term itself and where it comes from (negative in context).

  • Megan

    The correct term is “died by Suicide”. This is what we are taught at suicide prevention helplines. The word committed is has a completely INCORRECT connotation, so NO, “professional journalists” should not just “stick to ‘commit'”.

    Moreover, don’t say “fail” or “success” when referring to suicide. Say “fatal” or “non-fatal.”

  • Simon

    Why not just ‘died by suicide’?

  • KC

    The word “completed” or “completion” is added to the word suicide in the survivor/recovery world when the deceased person has had a long history of mental illness or drug abuse…No one wakes up one day & just kills them self…It is usually a long fought out battle with many attempts along the way…It is a respectful & companionate way to ex knowledge the struggle endured along the way !!!

  • Eva

    According to the definition given by the Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention at the National Institute of Mental Health, a ‘completed suicide’ means it’s a self-injurious acts committed by an individual and the outcome of this suicidal act is death.

    If the individual survives, the suicidal act is a ‘suicide attempt’.

    So ‘completed suicide’ is actually the professional term used in medicine and psychology.

  • Melody Hames

    As a Mental Health First Aid Trainer the term completed suicide is preferred over committed suicide because of the power of our words. When speaking to someone who is contemplating suicide, the constant use of the word committed reinforces a specific action that does not have to be taken. Making a committment to something implies loyalty, faith, and stick-to-itveness. The idea is to let people know that they do have have to be committed to a thought of suicide. Thoughts of suicide are just that and need not be acted upon. The term successful suicide should also be avoided because success should not be associated with suicide.

  • Jimbo

    The suggestion that the word ‘completed’ is redundant can equally apply to committed and in general makes no sense.

    If dave murdered someone, we don’t have to say he commited or completed murder. We say he murdered someone.

    The same does not apply to suicide. We don’t say of someone that they suicided. You therefore need a verb (committed or completed) to go with the noun (suicide).

  • Liz

    I don’t understand why one can’t say ‘died by suicide’ Yes i’m a survivor of suicide (my sister) and yes the word committed does bother me but ‘completed’ sounds just ridiculous as well.

  • tara

    Being a survivor of suicide (my father died from a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head), I want to say that if doesn’t matter how you say he committed the act because there is no pretty way to put it…but completed is redundant, and successful is ridiculous. the word suicide is sufficient.

  • thebluebird11

    @Maureen: It sounds to me as if maybe the meeting-leaders are trying to stop survivors from feeling bad about what they did. In other words, they don’t want survivors to feel as if they “committed a crime.” Suicidal ideation, suicide attempt and completed suicide are not crimes, nor should someone feel bad about having “been there.” There are psychiatric (and physical) illnesses that cause people to want to kill themselves. To “healthy” (for lack of a better term) people, the reasons won’t often make sense. But I can tell you from personal experience, the reason makes perfect sense to the person in the pit. If you can start a movement to separate the words “commit” and “suicide,” come up with a better phrase, let us know, and more power to you.

  • Maureen Madril

    When I started going to a meeting for suicided survivors we were told The term “Committed Suicided” is incorrect, Committed Connotes Criminal Behavior,and Suicide is not a Crime, Its an Illness

  • Keith Andrews

    As an Army Chaplain, I teach many classes on suicide prevention. One of the aspects I teach is that there are different types of suicidal behavior: Suicidal Ideation, Suicide Attempt, and Completed Suicide. The word “completed” is added to be more specific in the discussion. Without the modifier, “completed”, the discussion gets confusing. It is that simple.

  • Baruch Atta

    There is “attempted suicide”, where the guy didn’t die. And suicide. Would it be an oxymoron to say “successful suicide”? Because any suicide is in essence a failure at life. The irony loom large. Be clear and concise. Why say “successful suicide” when just “suicide” is enough? Unless, say, you are describing a series of unsuccessful attempts, and finally, the successful one. There is never a second successful one.

  • thebluebird11

    @Dick: Sure, why not? I agree with you. Suicide gesture, suicide attempt, suicide completion. Mission accomplished, performed, completed, done…committed…whatever.

  • Dick

    My first reaction to the phrase “completed suicide” is that it makes sense as a parallel to “attempted suicide.”

  • Philip Dragonetti

    “Completed suicide”???
    That falls into the same category as the faux-word the word-butchers use, the faux-word “fullest”,
    —like :
    “Trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”

    Well, I’m glad they used the faux-word “fullest”—because I intend to trespass just a little bit—and perhaps then I will only be prosecuted to the “full” extent of the law—which, obviously, is less that the “fullest” extent.

    See ya.
    Phil 🙂

  • thebluebird11

    @Nancy: I have been in the medical field for more years than I care to remember (almost 30 as a PA and almost 20 as a medical transcriptionist). I have had some exposure to psych along the way, intermittently, and also now work daily transcribing reports for several psych clinics. I have heard the term “completed suicide.” Perhaps this is a new way of phrasing it (younger doctors using the term), or perhaps it is a regional thing (my accounts are in the Illinois area). But, it is out there.

  • Nancy

    I’ve worked in the mental health field for years and haven’t heard the term “completed suicide.” It sounds redundant. It’s either a suicide, a suicide attempt or a suicide gesture. It might just be my little corner of the world, but I don’t see any of us changing to that particular terminology.

  • thebluebird11

    In general, the opposite of “complete” (ie total or finished) would be “incomplete” (meaning, there is something missing or unfinished). However, in this case, the opposite would be “uncompleted,” or, as you mentioned, “failed,” or, as we in the medical profession might also say, “attempted.”
    So for example, if a doctor is dictating a report, s/he might mention in the patient’s psych history that the patient has had X number of suicide attempts, and might also mention, in the section about the patient’s family history, that (for example) the patient’s mother had 2 suicide attempts and finally completed suicide (on, presumably, the 3rd attempt). Or, perhaps the mother completed suicide on the very first try.
    I suppose it is a substitute word (in this case) for “committed,” but I think we are just accustomed to the phrase “committed suicide,” and anything else (paired with the word suicide) sounds odd. You could commit a suicide attempt too; why not? To “commit” just means to “perform” (in this case). But we don’t say “performed suicide.” It just sounds odd; we’re not used to hearing that phrase. In fact, it sounds like something you might hear from a non-native English speaker, who hasn’t quite got the lingo down yet.

  • Mike

    I’ve lost two friends to suicide. On each occasion a different phrase was used by the people who broke the news.

    It’s just as shocking to be told your friend “killed themselves”, as it is to be told they’ve “committed suicide”.

    The information is what causes the distress.

  • Cat Woods

    I don’t think there is a way to make the completion of a suicide attempt not feel harsh.

    Sometimes it is just best to say it and move on.

  • Laya

    I don’t understand the use of “completed suicide”, as I don’t believe the stigma is with the word, “committed” but with the act, “suicide.” As in committed a murder, the stigma is attached with the act itself. I still feel, if one wants to convey that the sucide attempt failed, one says, “attempted suicide, but failed.” Committed suicide already has an air of finality about it, so I doubt the word, completed is required at all.

  • Shane

    I think here, the idea may be that “committed” would be suggestive of a criminal act (committed suicide, committed burglary, etc) and the idea may be to avoid interjecting a moral stance by the White House, and to simply express sympathy to a grieving family.

    But completed is probably not the best word. Successful maybe? No…

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