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.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Ghosts of Social Media

I like social media. It suits me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I'm not very good at communicating with people generally. It allows me to keep a large amount of interaction with a fairly minor amount of effort. From my point of view, it makes keeping in touch with people surprisingly easy.

But it doesn't work for everyone. In fact, I think it can make some people feel even more left out. Now, this isn't anyone's fault, and I'm not suggesting that one way is better than the other. It just struck me as something that seems to have changed that I haven't seen anyone talking about.

Facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram and the like make it much easier to be in touch with people without putting any real effort in to specifically doing so. For the lazy and introverted yet outgoing and attention-seeking (yes, me), it's fantastic. But I can't remember the last time that I emailed someone on a personal basis. Nor can I remember the last time someone emailed me over something personal. I don't have as many people's phone numbers on my mobile as I used to - I don't need them any more as I have other ways of contacting people. More convenient ones.

I'm easy to contact, and if you use social media (especially with your real name), you'll be easy to contact as well. I see a lot more of people that are on social media, and a lot more of those friends of mine who are on social media, than I do otherwise. It's very easy to have a rough idea what's going on in people's lives.

It's so easy, in fact, that there can, sometimes, be the assumption that if someone isn't on there, they don't want to be contacted. Or that they'll turn up eventually.

After all, the rest of us are out there, broadcasting our availability and the ease with which we can be contacted. And when someone vanishes from social media, it can be more difficult to notice. After all, you get used to missing updates, but you're safe in the knowledge that they're there. And even if you do notice, there can be an element of "I haven't seen online in a while - they must be taking a break/avoiding social media/avoiding me/feeling a bit antisocial/etc". 

Meanwhile, there may be people you know that you haven't spoken to for a while, and they wonder why. Because they're not following you on social media or they signed up but don't really use it.

Direct communication happens less often. Not in the sense of direct messaging or instant messaging - they're somewhat different, not least because of the amount of times they're often prompted by knowing the other person is online. You click their profile and you have that short, easy message.

As a result, email can end up feeling quite direct. Quite demanding. "Stop what you're doing and read this message that I have sent you, which may be quite long". Much easier with social media where it's taken a little for granted that it'll be read or acknowledged or responded to or ignored in the time that suits the person using it.

Some of us have taken to communicating via a sort of post-it note system crossed with instant messenger. And less to specific, thought out messages that take more time.

The documentary "Dreams of a Life" is about a young woman who died suddenly and whose death wasn't discovered for a while. The strange thing about it is that she was outgoing and popular and knew people and saw people and went out with people and so on. When she died, some people she knew just didn't realise they hadn't heard from her in a while. When I read about it, the idea bothered me a lot, to the point where I still haven't been able to watch the documentary. I very much want to, but I suspect that it will upset me.

It used to be more difficult to be in touch with people. You had to write letters. Then you had to keep phone numbers. Then email addresses. But you still had to make that effort to be in touch with people and they had to make the effort to keep in touch with you.

Now, though, a lot of us no longer need to do that. The availability has become so easy that it's almost unusual when people don't do it. And when people stop doing it, do we always notice?

A lot of us drift in and out of each other's lives. Perhaps, now, this happens more so because we assume everyone is in a holding pattern and we no longer need to put the same effort in that we used to in order to be social.

I know a lot of people who suffer from depression. It's something I know far too well on a personal level (both my own, thankfully minor, and that of people who I care about). And when you feel down, it can be so easy to wonder who really cares. To wonder, if you were to stop being that outgoing person and withdraw and pull back, if people would notice. And if they did, whether they would take the steps to get in touch and ask and find out. Now it's so easy to be in touch, whether people would think or realise if they needed to put in more effort in order to stay in touch.

I can't honestly say that I would always realise. Even if I did, I may very well assume that whoever it was didn't want to be contacted, and an email or a phone call could feel far more intrusive. But I could see a situation where one person needs others to put more effort in to make them feel valued and those around them not even realising that this is the case any more. And it could end up with someone waiting for an email and an enquiry that's not coming because everyone else is assuming they'll make it clear when they're available to be contacted again.

This may have seemed a bit rambly. It's because I'm trying to put my finger on something that's bothering me about the situation, despite the fact that I think that social media is, overall, a marvelous thing that brings a lot of benefits. And I think it's a fairly widespread thing, but not something people have talked much about.

When it's become so easy to be in contact, can we still easily recognise when more effort needs to be put in?

Thursday 2 January 2014

Magic Falls Part 32

I am sat in the plainest room I have ever sat in. There is only a table and some chairs. They are heavy plastic. I do not have any control over whether or not I can leave. There are guards outside the door.

There is a man opposite me. He’s in his early forties. He’s slim and bearded and professional. He has not told me his name. He has been asking me the same questions over and over, trying to find different ways into what he’s trying to find out.

“How did you know about the sword?” he asks. I’ve lost track how many times he’s asked me variations of this question.

“It’s on Google Earth.”

“Very funny.”

“It’s all over the internet. There are pictures everywhere. Why is it unusual that I might know about it?”

“Because you know more.”

“I don’t know any more about why this has happened than you do.”

He looks to his left to the large mirror on the wall and then presses his finger to his ear before nodding.

“Why not just bring them in?” I ask.

“What?” He says.

“You’re blatantly talking to someone behind that mirror. This is not difficult for me to work out. You’re not even being subtle about it. If they want to talk to me, just bring them in. Let them ask directly.”

“I’ll ask the questions,” he says, before bringing his hand back to his ear. He looks to the left again and nods. 

“They’re joining us?”

“Yes,” he says. He doesn’t look overwhelmingly happy, but then he doesn’t look particularly angry either.

I’m exhausted. This has been going on for days, and I’ve been confined to a cell the rest of the time. I’ve not been hurt and I’ve been treated pretty well, all things considered, but there’s absolutely no doubt about the fact that I’m their prisoner.

I’ve asked to see a lawyer, but been told that because this is a matter of security, this isn’t a typical kind of arrest. I’m pretty sure that they are making up some of the rules as they go along, but they’re not being particularly forthcoming.

Still, I have no idea why Jack betrayed me the way he did. Where I came from… when I came from… Jack was my closest ally. We had created a group together that went on to change the world. The Knights. But somehow… things had turned out differently. He had become far more influential this time around – it had happened more quickly, possibly because of the situation with his daughter (or, although I didn’t want to admit it because of ego, because this time around, he’d done it by himself, and without me holding him back).

But still, all that influence. All those people ready to believe. We’d been able to do a lot with hundreds. He had thousands just in that audience, let alone in the rest of the country. Or the world.

All that belief. All that power.

And he believed me. I know he did. He knows how important this is, and yet, somehow and for some reason, he made me go public and then he gave me up. And I didn’t know why.

The head of the department walks in. He had been introduced briefly the day beforehand, but he’d been very quiet. He’s with another man, and I still can’t work out where I know him from. I’ve been trying to work it out since I saw him in the theatre.

“Darren,” The head says, “We’re not on different sides here. You’ve got to understand that. We’re all looking for the same thing.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“We’re looking to keep everyone safe. The rules have changed. We know that and we are accepting it, but we can’t just declare anarchy in one fell swoop.” He says, calmly. “All we know about you is what we’ve been told. You’re here purely as a precaution. And so we can find out more about what’s going on.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” I say to him.

“Is he telling the truth?” he asks the other man, the familiar-looking one.

“I don’t know,” he says, frowning at me with confusion.

The head turns to him. “What do you mean ‘you don’t know’?”

“I mean I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t read him.”

“You could earlier.”

“I know I could earlier. I can’t now. I don’t know why.”

I looked at him more, and then it clicked. “You’re Shane Smith,” I said. “I’ve seen you on television.”

He looks at the head and then back at me, a ghost of a smile flickering across his face. “Yes, I am.”

“Why are you – you’re a stage magician. Why are you here?”

“Why do you think he’s here?” the head asks me.

I look at the two of them for a moment before realising. “Because magic is becoming real… so if people believe in your magic…”

Shane Smith nods. “Basically. Frightened the hell out of me at first, I can tell you that. I’m a mind reader. Used to be, I only did it for the stage. Now, it’s all the time.”

“All the time?” I ask.

He looks at the head, who nods. “Yes,” Smith says. “it’s not something I can switch off.”

“So…” I ask, “What does that mean with regards to what I’m saying?”

“All I’m getting is that you’re looking for your wife. Other than that… I can’t read a thing.”

“How are you blocking him?” the head asks me, looking more concerned now.

“I’m not doing a thing,” I say. “I really don’t know anything about this.”

“But you know about the sword.”

“I’ve only seen it on – “

“We have it on good authority,” the head tells me, cutting me off. “You know a lot more about this than you’re letting on.”

“You just don’t trust us,” Shane says. “You don’t need to be a mind-reader for that.”

I look at the two of them for long moments. “Then let me go. Let me go back to what I was doing.”

“How about,” the head asks, “if we were to offer a deal?”

“What kind of deal?” I ask.

“What if, in return for you helping us with the sword in Trafalgar Square,” he asks calmly and evenly, “we tell you where your wife is?”