There is widespread opposition to using the phrase “commit suicide”. The use of the word “commit” implies that suicide is a crime or a sin, and the argument is made that this stigmatises people who are thinking of suicide, making them feel even worse than they already do and perhaps making them less likely to seek help.

I get it. This makes sense.

But, at the same time, I think we lose something when we stop treating suicide as a sin.

I’m an atheist. My upbringing was almost entirely atheistic, and I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to Christianity. But from what I’ve been able to piece together, “thou shalt not kill” applies to oneself as much as to anyone else. The German word selbstmord is explicit: it means self-murder. And why not kill? Because life is a gift from God, and ultimately because there’s something sacred about human life.

To say to someone thinking of suicide that additionally they’re contemplating a sin seems unnecessarily harsh. But if what you’re actually saying is that their life is special and worthwhile, even when they can’t see that themselves, and that it would be a sin to give up on something so valuable… well, that might instead be a comfort.

And what’s the alternative? To use more neutral language? Is it not a little cold to say, “well, you could kill yourself or you could not kill yourself, and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other”? I’m exaggerating, obviously, and no one would put it like that exactly. But just as you have to be careful of the implications of the word “commit”, you have to be careful of the implications of taking that word away.

I’ve never been able to make much sense of the concept of sacredness. And yet even I can see that the promise that there is something sacred about your life – even when you’re in so deep a pit of despair that you would rather die – might offer some hope and encouragement. And if the concepts of God or sacredness don’t make sense to you, perhaps you could still translate “you’re valuable to God” into “you’re valuable to society and the world”, and perhaps that would be good enough.