Content warning: this post discusses suicide in an academic context
I’ve been struggling to write a post this week. I’m not sure if last week’s emotionally drained me or if it’s just a bit of writer’s block, but either way, I’ve started like ten posts without being able to get past that third sentence. So, this week’s post is slightly less creative and less introspective, but it’s important nonetheless.
Global Suicide Rates
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there were 788,000 deaths by suicide in 2015 alone. Approximately one every 40 seconds. I can’t even picture how many people that is.
WHO mentions that 1.4% of all worldwide deaths in 2015 were by suicide, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 29. Many more people attempt suicide, and though it is hard to know how many, estimates are more than 20 people attempt suicide for every suicide death. That would mean approximately 16,548,000 people attempted suicide in 2015 alone. That’s about one every two seconds.
There’s another alarming statistic from WHO: for approximately every three female suicides, there are five male suicides. Why such a difference? While, the best guess is that the methods of attempted suicide differ between genders. As bad form as it is, Wikipedia explains it well (with good sources that I don’t currently have access to):
The reported difference in suicide rates for males and females is partially a result of the methods used by each gender. Although females attempt suicide at a higher rate, they are more likely to use methods that are less immediately lethal. Males frequently complete suicide via high mortality actions […] This is in contrast to females, who tend to rely on drug overdosing.
The long and short of it is that men tend to attempt suicide in ways that leave a very little time window for life-saving interventions.
Talking About Suicide
Talking about suicide is hard, but it must happen.
A recent campaign in the UK, led by Cambridgeshire, Peterborough and South Lincolnshire Mind (CPSL Mind), called STOP Suicide recently released a powerful video centered around the need to talk openly about mental illness and suicide. The idea is that reaching out and asking someone directly if they are suicidal can help save a life. And they’re right.
That said, we need to be careful that we talk about suicide responsibly. Little things that we might be used to saying or hearing just add to the stigma around suicide and its discussion.
“Suicide is such a selfish thing to do.”
“He has so much to live for — why would he do that to his family?”
“She’s been threatening suicide.”
“He just cuts himself for attention.”
“She committed suicide.”
These phrases just pile on more guilt and shame to someone who is already likely feeling that way. Senses of hopelessness and burdensomeness are widely accepted as indicators of potential risk for suicidal thoughts. The more guilt and shame I’ve felt, the more I’ve felt in the way, burdensome.
So, lets clear up those phrases and provide alternatives. Suicide is not selfish, and it is not always about life or death, but about hopelessness, pain, and desperation. The sense of burdensomeness so common in suicidal thoughts can lead some to believe that they are not hurting their family or loved ones, but that they make actually be helping them.
Suicide and self-harm should never be considered a threat or a need for self-centred attention. If someone says these things out loud, always take it seriously until proved otherwise. It is just not worth a life, and talking about suicide this way adds stigma and misunderstanding to a vital conversation that we should be having.
Finally, there has been a push recently to stop using ‘committed’ to describe suicide. The phrase ‘to commit suicide’ is derived from suicide’s previous illegality and ‘immorality.’ In most countries, suicide and suicide attempts have (thankfully) been decriminalized and popular opinion is changing. Instead, try using more accurate phrases like ‘he died by suicide.’
Suicide in the Media
The Canadian Psychiatric Association released updated media guidelines on suicide in 2017. They list, among other things, the following tips:
- Prominent coverage, including
- front page/lead story coverage
- prominent photos of the deceased or loved ones or people engaged in suicidal behaviour
- Graphic or sensational depictions
- Excessive detail, including
- details or photos of the method and/or location; particularly avoid reporting novel or uncommon methods
- glorifying or glamourizing either the person or the act of suicide in a way that might lead others to identify with them
- the content of suicide notes
- Repetitive or excessive coverage
- Inappropriate use of language, including
- the word “suicide” in the headline
- “commit” or “committed” suicide
- “successful/unsuccessful” or “failed” attempts
- Simplistic or superficial reasons for the suicide (i.e., suicide as arising from a single cause or event, such as blaming social media for suicide)
- Portraying suicide as achieving results and solving problems
- do not describe suicidal behaviour as quick, easy, painless, certain to result in death, or relieving suffering/leading to peace (“in a better place”)
- Appropriate language (e.g., “he died by suicide” or “her suicide death”)
- Reporting that reduces stigma about mental disorders/seeking mental healthcare, and that challenges common myths about suicide
- refer to research linking mental disorders with suicide
- highlight that mental disorders are treatable and therefore that suicide is preventable
- highlight the tragedy of suicide (i.e., describe it in terms of a lost opportunity for someone suffering to have received help)
- seek advice from suicide prevention experts and consider including quotes on causes and treatments
- Alternatives to suicide (i.e., treatment)
- include community resource information, such as websites or hotlines, for those with suicidal thoughts
- where possible, list or link to a list of options including reaching out to a trusted family or community member, speaking to a physician or health care provider, seeking counselling/talk therapy, calling a hotline/911, or going to a nearby emergency department
- where possible, cite examples of a positive outcome of a suicidal crisis (i.e., calling a suicide hotline)
- embed emergency resource links/banners (for online content)
- Information for relatives and friends, such as
- warning signs of suicidal behaviour
- how to approach, support and protect a suicidal person
Consider following these guidelines if you write about or report on mental health and remember the importance of content/trigger warnings. Remember that inappropriate suicide coverage can lead to copycat attempts.
How To Help
And here is the most important part of the post: if you believe that you or someone you know is in imminent danger of serious self-harm or suicide, please try to get the sufferer to your local emergency services. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact your local crisis services — my Resources & Information page links to a worldwide list of available crisis lines and tips on talking to someone in crisis.
We all have mental health, and 1 in 4 worldwide will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, so why isn’t talking about mental illness the norm?