Kentuckians were shocked to learn that state Rep. Dan Johnson, recently accused of molesting a 17-year-old girl in 2012, killed himself on Dec. 13. Johnson denied any wrongdoing. Stepping aside from the issue of Johnson’s alleged behaviors, his death by suicide is tragic. It was reported in the Dec. 14 print and digital editions of the 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.
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 U.S., 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.”
That brings further shame and stigma. Instead, mental-health professionals 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 (samaritans.org, reportingonsuicide.org) encourage the use of terms such as “died by suicide” or “killed himself.” A cursory review of other major online media sources covering Johnson’s death finds that the more appropriate term “killed himself” was predominantly used, along with “died by suicide” and “apparent 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 was printed with the much 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 U.S. 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.
The World Health Organization estimates 1.53 million people worldwide will die by suicide in 2020. It was also reported in several outlets that Johnson shot himself with a handgun. Fully one half, or about 22,000 of the 2015 U.S. suicide deaths involved firearms. In contrast, about 13,000 people were killed with guns that same year due to intentional or accidental shootings.
Realizing that more firearm-related deaths are due to suicide than homicide is an often-overlooked aspect of the continuing dialogue about gun control.
Media best practices 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 U.S. at 1-800-273-8255 or contact a local health-care provider.
Suicide may not be predictable, but it is preventable with early intervention. Just as 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.
David T. Susman is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.
At issue: Herald-Leader article, “Accused of molesting teen, Ky. Rep. Dan Johnson commits suicide”