Tuesday 14 January 2014

Why we need to get better at talking about suicide

Today's front page of the Metro bothered me quite a lot. It told the story of a young girl who killed herself and who spent a lot of time online discussing self-harm and suicide.

I'm not going to use the girl's name here. This is already a sad story and I don't want anyone to find this by searching for it. But they talk at length about her self-harm and her life online before talking about her suicide.

I found the way this has been reported troubling for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the way they've discussed the websites that have been 'accused of promoting suicide'.

It's important to question how bad the idea of 'promoting' or 'normalising' suicidal impulses is. I think there's absolutely no question that normalising suicide in a way that trivialises it is obviously a bad thing, but normalisation is not a simple concept. It's quite a large area and it includes the idea that you may not be alone. That you're not a freak for having these thoughts. That it's not necessarily the end of the world to sometimes feel like you're at the end of your strength and you simply do not want to keep going. That you are not necessarily selfish for feeling like that.

Being able to talk to other people who feel the same, being able to have a space where you can interact with other people that are dealing with similar things that you're dealing with is, at times, an invaluable thing for those of us who feel alone and feel that all their options are bad. Sometimes, just feeling understood can save lives.

Not all are good. Some are unmoderated or have good intentions but also have trolls. But not all are bad either and treating all of them as if they're the same is not helpful. In fact, I think that it's harmful. Suicidal impulses aren't something that, societally, we're good at talking about. We need to get better at it. And blanket-criticising the sites that do allow people to talk about it is not likely to be the best way to go about this.

The second thing that troubles me is that they've made clear how she did kill herself. Again, they've not given the exact details, but it's very clear from how the story was written.

The simple fact is that describing methodology often increases more people to do the same. This is why it often isn't done. Sometimes, making it easier for people to kill themselves makes it more likely that they will. And one of the things that stops some people from killing themselves is when they don't know if a method is going to work. Because sometimes, one of the few things worse than the idea of killing yourself is the thought of trying to kill yourself but failing. After all, often the point is getting the pain to stop, not making it worse.

This can be seen in the Samaritans' media guidelines. As Jeremy Paxman says in the introduction, "inappropriate reporting or depiction can lead to ‘copycat suicides’, particularly amongst younger more vulnerable audiences. Reporting details that can
seem inconsequential and merely factual to some audiences can have a profoundly negative effect on others who might be more emotionally vulnerable."

So when you report on the front page of someone killing themselves and talking about it in a way that portrays it as successful, the chances of someone reading about it and deciding that they're going to try it that way increases. Especially young people.

This leads me to the third point that troubles me about this story. The fact that it was reported at all, let alone on the front page with a large picture of an attractive young girl and talking about the sadness of it all.

What The Metro has done, I feel, is to take a photogenic young teenage girl and plaster her over their front page primarily because she is a photogenic young teenage girl, and criticised some of the ways in which she talked about what she was going through. Sadly, many people kill themselves. Not many of them make the front page.

I don't see how this isn't glorifying suicide. I don't see how this isn't telling other teenage girls "Look. Look how beautiful she was and how tragic this was. Look how everyone now knows how she felt."

Charlie Brooker talked memorably about how mass murderers are glorified. There's a similar lesson to be taken here. When you glorify something, there may well be people who want to emulate it. When you have the research that shows that reporting methodology of suicide to back that up, putting a story like this on the front page of one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK - which is given away free at underground train stations, no less - is likely to make other people think that, if they have nothing else going right in their lives, they may at least be able to be remembered and glorified the way this girl has been on the front page.

This is a sad story. Of course it is. Suicide is always sad and when it's the suicide of someone young it's even more so. But this did not need to be a front page. For it to be a front page is difficult. It may even have been for the right reasons. But it being a front page makes it more likely that someone else will try to do what was described in the story.

We need to create more safe spaces for people to talk about suicide and suicidal impulses. We need to get better at talking about it and accept that so many people feel the need to talk about it. That, sometimes, allowing people to talk about the harm they wish to do themselves is more important than our discomfort at hearing about it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. I saw Metro in the canteen at work yesterday and binned it after seeing the front page. The article seemed so wrong but I couldn't have explained why it made me so angry & uncomfortable. You put it a lot better than I could have.