No matter how often I think about it, the fact that suicide wasn’t decriminalised in England and Wales until 1961 never loses its power to shock. Barely believably, in a world of passenger jets, space exploration, television and pop music, one which in many ways appears not so different to our own, those who failed in an attempt to take their lives were still, at least theoretically, liable to prosecution and imprisonment. Even if criminal proceedings were increasingly rare, hospital staff continued to meet their obligation to report cases of attempted suicide to the Police – and the Metropolitan Police’s own guidance of the time was unequivocal; "an attempt to commit suicide is an attempt to commit a felony, and therefore punishable with hard labour’.
We pride ourselves on now living in a more enlightened age, one which understands and recognises the dark force of mental illness and accords people driven to take their lives under its malign influence the same care and respect as those who have died by any other means. As we mark another World Suicide Prevention Day the media is overflowing with articles on mental illness. The risks, in particular those posed to young men, are increasingly well known. Suicide prevention is in the news.
But the language from that brutal legal framework of post war Britain, rooted in fifth century notions of the sin of ‘self murder’, is still with us. The phrase ‘committed suicide’ is so pervasive, so commonplace, that it appears in many of those same well meaning articles and features we read today. And its not just journalists and sub-editors. Even some medical professionals and others within the system continue to use the term. I can’t blame them. I used to myself. We fall back on it instinctively. In a game of word association, the two words would be inextricably linked. If you are not directly affected by the act of suicide you would have no reason to reflect upon its usage, much less challenge it.
But if you are, then the term jumps out at you and hits you squarely between the eyes, knocking you for six with its entirely inappropriate connotations of blame and criminality, straight from the musty pages of that Metropolitan Police guidance. Nobody would think that it’s acceptable to say that somebody has committed death by cancer or heart disease so why should we persist in doing so with suicide? Why should there be such a contrast in our treatment of a disease of the mind as opposed to a disease of the body?
It’s not as if there are no alternatives. ‘Died by suicide’ might sound a clumsy and unnatural formulation but only because it is so rarely heard. In describing Louise’s death I often simply say that she hanged herself. It may sound stark. It may shock but it accurately reflects her experience and mine. Neither Louise nor I have anything to apologise for, nor am I particularly concerned about sheltering others from the harsh truth – I have to live with the reality and the memory of it every day whereas their glimpse into my world is fleeting and distant.
No doubt some would argue that none of this matters. They are only words. But language does not exist in a vacuum. It shapes, articulates and reflects societal attitudes. They are words which unthinkingly betray a lack of respect and consideration for the victims of this particular form of disease, and for their relatives. They suggest that for all the lip service paid to mental illness there remains remnants of the dismissive and hostile attitudes more openly held towards it generations ago.
And those residual prejudices continue to be reflected in choices in healthcare funding where mental health services persistently find themselves relatively less well-resourced than other branches of medicine. Somewhere along the line, words – and the attitudes they consciously or unconsciously represent – form part of a chain of cultural ignorance which ends in real suffering and real death.
The implication that those driven by darkness and desperation to such extreme and tragic measures are somehow guilty of wrongdoing says more about the society which tolerates such attitudes than it does about those who it persists in misunderstanding and maligning. Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far during the course of the past 50 years as we would like to think.