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Time to remove the stigma of ‘suicide’

Opinion by Rev Colin Jamieson

I have long had a deep pastoral concern that we must remove moral prejudice regarding suicide. We need to stop using the words ‘commit suicide’. The word ‘commit’ implicates a crime or error. Suicide is no longer a crime, so it should no longer be referred to in this way. ‘Suicide’ could be used as a verb if some want to retain it.

‘Suicide’ should be used in the same way as ‘homicide’ i.e., with reference to the law. Before the coroner gives a statement of cause, the media now use ‘sudden death’ or ‘early death’. There are numerous ways in which the means of death may be described – the giving or taking of one’s own life, self dissolution, self-inflicted death or sacrifice, or self termination.

There are concerns in reporting such deaths. The Coroners’ Act states if there is “reasonable cause to believe” the death was self-inflicted, the media may not, without the permission of the coroner give details of how the death occurred. If the coroner finds the death was self-inflicted, that finding may be published but without the coroner’s permission, the media cannot give particulars of the manner of death, the circumstances of death, or things that emerged at the inquest.

The words, “reasonable cause to believe” suggest the moral and pastoral dilemma over passing negative judgements on individuals and families. The public does not have to believe ill of a self-inflicted death. Indeed, they should not have that opportunity just as they no longer have in regard to children born out of wedlock. It is no longer acceptable to speak of ‘illegitimate children’. The removal of moralistic stigma was well due for children and now it is well due for the dead and their families.

The media have a major part in setting, or at least reflecting, the attitudes of the community. They often hold back on using the word ‘suicide’ when they choose to avoid reflecting shame on an individual or family, e.g., when a young, promising athlete took his own life and there was a huge, supportive attendance at the funeral. I note in The Press of February 22 journalists were able to avoid the word ‘suicide’ in reporting on one of their colleagues: “Hunter S. Thompson takes his own life”. It is just a pity they are not so concerned and discrete with all such deaths.

This is not to say it is not a tragedy when someone takes his or her own life. However, there is a problem when turning tragedy into news, just as there is with scandalous gossip. As the media continue to highlight the sensational, so the notoriety and recognition increases. Suicide bombings have multiplied over the last few decades.

There should be no moral judgement made on those who take their own lives, or at the very least, great allowance should be made for their mental condition. The deluded may believe their death will benefit someone else. Perhaps they think they are so miserable their demise will release their families from the burden of care. This is a distortion of the instinct to self sacrifice, a distortion that can only be undone with the help of others. If such neighbourly support is not available, then self termination remains a reasonable, if regrettable, response.

We are called to live and let live. All other rights develop from this. It is of our culture that there is a natural law to affirm life in which there appears to be no right to die. But included in the right to live, must be the right to move on; whether that be to advance one’s character or personal development, change careers, go somewhere, cross the River Jordon, go to heaven, or even go into oblivion.

The idea that religion has its own code, i.e., that suicide is a sin and therefore punished by God, no longer has valid theological backing and never had a scriptural foundation. The catechism o the Catholic Church outlines the view on suicide. “Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope and charity, and is forbidden by the fifth commandment.” I cannot see how it can be contrary to contemporary justice, nor contrary to the hope of full salvation by the grace of God and the work of Jesus. Nor is it contrary to charity whose source is in God and epitomised by the sacrificial act of Jesus the Lamb, all of which remain independent of our human acts.

Modern society faces many dilemmas in regard to the individual’s role in society. The least we can do is free the deceased and their families from unjustified condemnation as we refrain from using such terms as ‘committing suicide’.