The power of words – Should we be talking about suicide?

Trigger warning: frank discussion about suicide.

Recently some prominent figures have died by suicide and subsequently, the media have been reporting their stories. People such as, designer Kate Spade, chef Anthony Bourdain and reality TV star Sophie Graydon are some of the most recent prominent people who have ended their own lives.

There has been an outpouring of grief and compassion towards these people by most. However, there are still too many people who are extremely ignorant and negative about the pain that these people would have been going through to take such drastic action.

In the immediate aftermath discussions of suicide and suicide awareness skyrocketed but this effect is only ever temporary. Yet today only a month after the media exploded with reports of Kate Spade’s death the discussion has once again disappeared and been swept away. Only to be brought back to the public’s attention when the next famous figure makes the decision that life is just too much.

So, I have to question how do we keep the discussion going?

There is still so much stigma associated with discussing suicide people feel that merely discussing this taboo topic will result in the incidence of suicide increasing. Therefore, researching this topic is difficult, researchers are expected to not cause harm to participant’s and studies need to be approved by ethics committees, so, asking questions that may increase suicide rates are extremely problematic.

However, current research looking at people talking or asking others about suicide have yet to find that there are any significant increases in people ending their own life. In some cases, evidence has shown that asking someone if they have contemplated ending their own life has been beneficial in reducing suicidal ideation [1, 2].

Yes, there has been research that has shown that actively reporting the details and methodology used for suicides has increased the likelihood of copycat behaviour, known as modelling in the psychology world [3].

Which is why several media guidelines have been prepared as the media’s portrayal of suicide can influence copycat behaviour under particular circumstances. One set of guidelines – the Mental Health Media Charter details the best way to report mental health issues. This charter is probably one of the most accessible for media outlets and bloggers alike because it is short and to the point.

The Mental Health Book Club Podcast is actively trying to raise awareness of mental health and associated issues including suicide and its prevention.

I have been there, not only have I at times experienced suicidal ideation (which I have to admit is much less these days) and my own attempts at taking my own life, I have come to realise that regardless of people discussing the topic I would have made the same decision. Maybe if someone had raised the question, and depending on who they were, I may or may not have felt comfortable enough to discuss my feelings. Even if I hadn’t, I would have at least realised that someone had noticed my distress (although I had become extremely adept at hiding it).

So, keep talking mental health, my next post will be about ways to talk about suicide with others.

[1] Dazzi, T.  Gribble, R.  Wessely S. and Fear, N. T. (2014) Does asking about suicide and related behaviours induce suicidal ideation? What is the evidence? Psychological Medicine 44: 3361-3363

[2] DeCou  C.R.  Schumann M.E. (2017) On the Iatrogenic Risk of Assessing Suicidality: A Meta‐Analysis, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behav. doi:10.1111/sltb.12368

[3] Definition of modelling (2018)

[4] Perkis, J. and Blood, W. (2010) Suicide and the news and information media: A critical review,-Suicide-and-the-news-and-information-media.pdf