Believe this: Taking suicide seriously on social media

Written by Mark Harrison

Social media allows everyone to voice their opinion anything. With that comes a greater responsibility to take care about what we say about other people because we never know who will be reading what we send.

Last week was a prime example of this: Actor Meghan Markle revealed that she had felt suicidal during her pregnancy, and many responses on social media and from members of the press said: “We don’t believe you.” There is data to suggest that such reactions online can be dangerous to others feeling suicidal. So how can we be better?

The public refusal of the truth of Markle’s confession, and the reaction around it on social media, was concerning. However, many UK mental health charities rose up to combat the stigma against suicide and tried to change the course of the discussion over the week.

How not to report on suicide

The morning after Markle’s interview where she revealed she had experienced suicidal thoughts, Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan claimed he “didn’t believe a word” of what she said. This comment prompted over 41,000 Ofcom complaints, and later Morgan left as host of the ITV show.

UK mental health Charity Mind tweeted in response to Morgan’s comments, saying: “It’s vital that when people reach out for support or share their experiences of ill mental health that they are treated with dignity, respect and empathy.”

The day after Morgan’s comments, Simon Gunning, the CEO of the suicide charity CALM (Campaign against living miserably), released a statement in response.

Gunning said: “Recent events in the media serve as a timely reminder that no one should suffer in silence, and that we must continue to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide.”

He went on to say that CALM were “deeply disappointed by Piers Morgan’s comments on Good Morning Britain.”

Rather than focusing on Morgan’s comments like many others did, Gunning chose to focus on the message that there is still a long way to go for everyone.

Gunning ended by saying: “While progress has been made in recent years to change the discourse and help people open up about how they feel, there’s still a long way to go in tackling the stigma surrounding mental health. The tragic rise in suicide amongst men, and women aged 10-24 years old is a poignant reminder of how far there is to go.”

The figures and the facilitator

In December last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that there were 10.6 suicides per 100,000 people in 2018 – the highest rate in 14 years, which increased from 9.7 suicides per 100,000 people in 2016.

In the graph below, the bars show the number of people who contact the NHS mental health services each month, slowly increasing each time. The line inside shows the number of adults using the services.

Suicide and mental health issues are still rising issues in the UK. Twitter storms like last Monday’s do not help, and the internet can often worsen the situation and cause serious harm to someone who may be feeling suicidal.

Professor Keith Hawton, Director for the centre of suicide research at Oxford University says: “There is abundant international evidence that media reporting and portrayal of suicide can be extremely influential. Poor media practice can cause further loss of life, especially in more vulnerable groups such as the young and people with mental health problems. On the other hand, careful and responsible media handling of this important issue can contribute to suicide prevention.”

Furthermore, research undertaken by Samaritans and the University of Bristol found “at least a quarter of patients who had self-harmed with high suicidal intent, had used the internet in connection with their self-harm. Likewise, a national inquiry into suicides by young people found there was suicide-related internet use in nearly half of suicides by young people every year.”

How should we be talking about the issues of suicide and mental health on social media? To what standards should we hold people like Piers Morgan to when they make comments like “I wouldn’t believe a weather report from her?”

The solution

The Samaritans has a set of media guidelines for organisations to follow, and in the guidelines are pieces of advice that everyone, not just journalists, can use regarding suicide on social media.

Some of the following things you should be aware of when talking/reading about suicide online:

  • Include references to suicide being preventable
    and signpost sources of support, such as
    Samaritans’ helpline. This can encourage
    people to seek help, which could save lives.
  • Speculation about the ‘trigger’ or cause
    of a suicide can oversimplify the issue and
    should be avoided. Suicide is extremely
    complex and most of the time there is no
    single event or factor that leads someone
    to take their own life.
  • Coverage that reflects the wider issues around
    suicide, including that it is preventable, can
    help reduce the risk of suicidal behaviour.
  • Steer clear of presenting suicidal behaviour as an
    understandable response to a crisis or adversity.
    This can contribute to unhelpful and risky
    normalising of suicide as an appropriate response
    to distress.

Samaritans last week launched a new set of online safety resources to support those who are writing online about self harm and suicide.

Lydia Grace, Samaritans Policy and Research Programme Manager for Online Harms said: “We know the online environment can provide a vital source of support for individuals experiencing self-harm and suicidal feelings but it also creates opportunities to access potentially harmful and triggering content. It’s therefore essential that young people have the tools they need to stay safe online and access the benefits of the internet, whilst minimizing potential for harm.”

Suicide is a serious issue in this country. The statistics show it, and the reaction on social media and in the news last week proved it further. We all have a responsibility to take people seriously when they open up, and to be empathetic and help them when they need it. By taking some of the steps outlined here, and encouraging others to do so too, we can all improve the wellbeing of others in the UK.

Mental Health Charities Contact Information:

Samaritans: 116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58

MIND: 0300 123 3393

Sheffield Flourish: 0114 273 7009


(Featured Image credit: Sydney Sims, Unsplash)

Written by Mark Harrison

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