We were shocked to learn that one of our Kentucky state representatives, Dan Johnson, recently accused of molesting a 17-year-old girl in 2012, killed himself on December 13. Johnson denied any wrongdoing in a recent press conference. Stepping aside from the issue of Johnson’s alleged behaviors, his death by suicide is tragic.
Johnson’s death was reported on the front page of the December 14th print and digital editions of the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader under the title “Accused of molesting teen, KY Rep. Dan Johnson commits suicide.”
The use of the term “commits suicide” (and the related “committed suicide”) is stigmatizing, antiquated and inappropriate, and its usage must not continue.
Why does this choice of language matter so much?
The term “committed suicide” dates back to times when the act of killing oneself was considered a criminal offense. While legal sanctions for suicide have finally been eliminated in the US, several other countries still view the act as a crime.
According to author and suicide prevention advocate Stacey Freedenthal, the term “commit” often “signifies a crime or another act of wrongdoing,” as in to “commit adultery” or to “commit murder.” Freedenthal states the word “commit makes suicide sound like a crime,” which brings further shame and stigma to those who kill themselves.
Instead, mental health professionals, including myself, are aware that suicide is overwhelmingly related to significant mental illnesses, most often depression and/or substance abuse. The unrelenting anguish, despair, and hopelessness eventually lead these individuals to the place where suicide becomes their only option.
Several best practice guidelines for accurately and humanely reporting suicide in the media (e.g., samaritans.org, reportingonsuicide.org) encourage the use of terms such as “died by suicide” or “killed himself” instead of “committed suicide.”
A cursory review of numerous other major online media sources covering Johnson’s death finds that the term “killed himself” was predominantly used, along with “died by suicide” and “apparent suicide.” However, it is disappointing but not at all surprising that several articles still used “committed suicide.”
It is curious that in the “Extra Extra” portion (accessible only to digital subscribers) of the same day’s Herald-Leader, a similar article about Johnson’s death was printed with the more appropriate headline “Lawmaker accused of assault dies in apparent suicide.”
It is sobering to recall that suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the second leading cause among youth ages 15-24, according to 2015 data from the American Association of Suicidology. Over 44,000 Americans took their own lives that year, or one death every 12 minutes.
It is astonishing that the World Health Organization estimates 1.53 million people worldwide will die by suicide in 2020.
It was also reported in several outlets that Dan Johnson shot himself with a handgun. Fully one-half, or about 22,000 of the 2015 US suicide deaths involved firearms.
In contrast, about 13,000 people were killed with guns that same year due to intentional or accidental shootings unrelated to suicide.
Realizing that more firearm-related deaths are due to suicide than homicide is an often-overlooked aspect of the continuing dialogue about gun control. As this discussion proceeds, remember that guns are not only used to kill others. They are statistically much more often used to kill oneself.
Media best practices on suicide reporting also call on outlets to mention suicide prevention resources. I saw no such references in the articles I reviewed on Johnson’s death.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available in the US at 1-800-273-8255. If you or a loved one are considering suicide, call this number or contact a local health care provider immediately. Suicide may not be predictable, but it is preventable with early intervention.
While we no longer officially classify people with mental illness as “lunatics” nor diagnose individuals with intellectual disabilities as “retarded,” we also have the power to eliminate “committed suicide” from our collective vocabulary. The time to do so is now.
(An edited version of this article was published in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader.)
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