Suicide

March 28th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, references, suicide | 89 Comments »

Apologies for the exegesis, but I would like to formally introduce this piece as what I hope is my first unambiguous abuse of my position as a “columnist”. I had an acquaintance – the partner of a cherished ex-girlfriend – die in tragic circumstances (not suicide, as it happens) and the details were pored over hideously and unnecessarily by the media for no reason other than prurience and a desire to make a spectacle of someone else’s pain. The media have made it quite clear that they cannot be trusted to report sensibly on coroners’ inquests, and so they have made it quite clear that they should be expelled from them.

The Telegraph piece discussed below (which I suppose you can all find if you wish to) has stayed with me for many months, and rings out as one of the most appalling and foul pieces of reporting I have ever seen. It was written by someone called Charlotte Bailey. I suppose you can all find it if you wish to. I hope I have managed to make this an interesting column despite my indulgence, and I have pasted at the end what I hope is a very powerful piece of research.

Ben Goldacre
Saturday 28 March 2009
The Guardian

This week, in my crescendoing tirade against journalism, we shall review the evidence that the media actually kills people.

The suicide of Sylvia Plath’s son has filled the news. The media obsessed – understandably – over genetics, when mental illness is probably the single biggest risk factor, but the coverage has been universally thoughtful, considerate, informed, and responsible. This is not always the case, as we shall see. But before we get there, one important cause of suicide seems to have been missed.

In The Sorrows of Young Werthe by Goethe the hero shoots himself because his love is unattainable. It was banned after men throughout Europe were reported to be dressing like Werther, copying his affectations, and taking their own lives in the same style.

But a myth about a book is not enough: you need research. And it has been shown repeatedly that suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story. There is also evidence that the effect is bigger for famous people and gruesome attempts. You may want to remember that fact for later.

Details matter, as ever. Overdoses increased by 17% in the week after a prominent overdose on Casualty (watched by 22% of the population at the time), and paracetamol overdoses went up by more than others. In 1998 the Hong Kong media reported heavily on a case of carbon monoxide poisoning by a very specific method, using a charcoal burner. In the 10 months preceeding the reports, there had been no such suicides. In November there were 3; then in December there were 10; and over the next year there were 40. You may want to remember that story for later.

And it’s not pie in the sky to suggest that the media should be careful in how they discuss suicide. After the introduction of media reporting guidelines in Austria, for example, there was a significant decrease in the number of people throwing themselves under trains.

So organisations like the Samaritans take this seriously. They suggest that journalists avoid crass phrases like “a ‘successful’ suicide attempt”. They suggest that journalists avoid explicit or technical details of suicide methods, for reasons you can now understand. They suggest that journalists include details of further sources for help and advice, since an article about suicide represents a great opportunity to target people who are at risk with useful information. And they recommend avoiding simplistic explanations for suicide.

From the weekly mass of reports that trample on this perfectly good common sense, one article from the Telegraph at the tail end of last year particularly sticks in my memory. It is very different from the coverage of Sylvia Plath’s son, and you might have missed it.

“Man cut off own head with chainsaw” was the headline: “A man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leave his repossessed home.” What followed this headline was not a news story: far from it. What the Telegraph published was a horrific, comprehensive, explicit, and detailed instruction manual.

In fact this information was so appallingly technical and instructive that after some discussion we have decided that the Guardian will not print it, even in the context of a critique. It gives truly staggering details on exactly what to buy, how to rig it up, how to use it, and even how to make things more comfortable while waiting for death to come. Suicidal thoughts are common. They pass.

Journalists get these kinds of stories from coroners’ inquests, which are open to the public because we decided, as a community, centuries ago, that it was important to be transparent about the judicial process.

Perhaps Sylvia Plath’s son will have a public inquest. Perhaps the media will cover it in the same way that the Telegraph covered the tragic case of Mr Phyall. I doubt they will, and I very much hope they won’t. It’s just hard to tell which is the journalists’ true voice: the caring, compassionate, informed consolation, or the murderously detailed chainsaw voyeurism.

Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk

References:

Relevant papers can be found in the links above. There is a literature which I think is extremely powerful, and yet unanimously ignored by mainstream media, and that is the follow-up data on what happens later in life to people who have felt so suicidal that they have made serious attempts on their own lives. In extremis Pajonk et al followed up a large number of people who they picked up in intensive care after very serious suicide attempts. Amongst those who survived, and did not have serious psychotic illnesses, six years later, the majority were happy and well, living productive family lives, and were – we might reasonably interpolate – glad to be alive.

This is the reality of suicidal thoughts, and this is the kind of thing that people need to be told, in place of detailed instructions on how to kill yourself with a chainsaw. I hang my head in shame to think that I have ever been called a journalist, and in all honesty I don’t understand how Charlotte Bailey could write what she did, or why her editor would publish it.

Midday:

to be clear, commenters are absolutely right, my suggestion that the press should be banned from coroners courts outright is poorly thought through. the end goal is that they should write about this kind of thing a bit more sensibly. shaming them or regulating them might be another route to make this more likely, and i’d be pleased to hear if people had any other ideas.


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89 Responses



  1. fionn said,

    March 28, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    LeGioN said,

    Surely, by not doing more to help the suicidal we reveal our weaknesses, not our strengths. Our strength is measured by how we treat the ill, the elderly and those who are less capable of looking after themselves, and not by how fast we can shake off our responsibilities to them.

    This assumes, as you have done throughout your post, that suicide is never justified, rational or respectable as a personal decision.

    It is not ‘sad that some people commit suicide after such articles’, it’s a tragedy; a tragedy that, if you had actually read the above article, can be mitigated through responsible (not censored) journalism. Your suggestion that journalists have no responsibility for what they write is astounding. Everyone is responsible for their actions and must also be able to account for them if called to do so. Journalists are no exception.

    That’s not what ogmal said, though, right? Ogmal said that journalists are, of course, responsible for what they write, but that the suicidal actions of others are something for which journalists ought not to be responsible.

    I think we can object to articles of this sort on the basis of tastefulness, but not on the basis that it might (or even does) play a causal role in further suicidal behaviour, since I’m not sure suicides are something which are categorically wrong, nor something of overriding moral seriousness.

    If newspapers are prohibited from providing details on how to make a car bomb (indeed, disseminating such information can lead to a lengthy spell in prison), then why should they be permitted to give explicit ‘how-to’ guides on committing suicide, when suicides account for more deaths per year than do acts of terrorism.

    The important reason why these two phenomena are different is that self-killing isn’t universally considered nearly as morally objectionable as other-killing. Some people, like myself, don’t consider it to be objectionable in most cases.

    Owning your own home, raising a family and wanting financial security are all reasonable goals for many people today. Committing suicide is not.

    Respectfully, you have to do a lot more work to justify that attitude. There is a long philosophical tradition on the subject of suicide, in which the reasonableness of some forms of suicide is often defended. To state categorically that committing suicide is never reasonable is to pre-empt exactly the sort of discussion which is central to determining the correctness of Ben’s point.

    I recommend the Stanford article on the suicide. It’s quite comprehensive.
    Read, also, Hume’s famous defenses of suicide…

    Are these unnecessary people the same as Jews, blacks or the disabled? You know, ‘inferior people’.

    Ho hum. I sincerely doubt, even if the eugenecist goals you’ve peremptorily attributed to ogmal really did belong to him/her, that merely neglecting to oppose suicide would be a very effective way of achieving them. Further, I think this sort of inflammatory comment is sort of unnecessary, no?

    Children who want to be firemen, doctors, or astronauts when they grow up have reasonable goals. No person in a reasonable frame of mind would think, “one day, in the future, I’m going to commit suicide. Not today, though, because I am quite happy at the moment”.

    I don’t find that point intuitively compelling. I can quite easily conceive of many cases in which I would be likely to kill myself, should the wind change. There are many conditions which, if they are met, will raise the option of suicide for me. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that, being a person who leads a happy and fulfilling life as I am. In fact, the supposition that to consider such options would be, even for me, categorically irrational is a point I don’t receive very well. It’s a bit… ideological, shall we say?

  2. perspix said,

    March 28, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Just a question.

    Are we sure that reporting details of high profile suicides increases the suicide rate? A high profile suicide by a reported method may increase suicides by that method, but that’s not the same thing.

    Did the 17% increase in overdoses mentioned in this article represent an increase in total suicides or did it cannibalise the figures for other methods?

    I’m asking as I can’t read those paywall links provided and would like to have had this clarified.

  3. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 29, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Does Stephen Fry count in the discussion? See “BBC News Online – Entertainment” web page, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/5202066.stm

    Of course he’d stopped doing [Jeeves and Wooster] by then, so how much would we have missed? :-)

  4. jodyaberdein said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Re: JQH

    As I recall the cited increase after a ‘Casualty’ episode was perhaps because the episode involved self poisoning with Paraquat, a particularly nasty, totally untreatable poison (unlike the usual one I experience treating which is paracetamol, merely a nasty partially treatable poison). Hence merely by altering the chosen method there was an effect on ‘success’ rate.

    Re: Fionn

    In a civil society the protection of the most vulnerable members has a limited scope, particularly with reference to not reporting details of suicide attempts, even though such reporting seems to increase successful suicide attempts, because the gains to society are…..?

  5. Indy said,

    March 29, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Thanks LeGioN, I was about to start a long rebuttal or @omgal’s post – you’ve a’ready done it.

    I think a point has been missed: the media do not report every happening in society, and in fact some things that are not reported are probably just as newsworthy. Surely the slippery slope arguement falls over because of this – we already have de facto censorship, and we don’t expect a detailed list of stories that remain unpublished. Therefore, a decision not to publish a gory description of a tragedy does not immediately lead up to a reduction in freedom of speech.

  6. Jeesh42 said,

    March 29, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I think the people here that are defending journalists’ rights to seek out information and publish freely have a point.

    But they are missing two bigger points. The first has been made by other commentators: if people (like ppower) think it’s okay to print gory details because readers “will judge for themselves what’s necessary”, then this is ignoring the evidence (i.e. the real world, not the world we’d like to live in) in favour of some lofty ideology. Having some restraint isn’t some BS middle-class paternalism/censorship – people are really dying when they don’t have to.

    The second point, which I think many commentators have ignored here when defending journalists like Charlotte Bailey, is that these same journalists already claim to adhere to the PCC code of conduct (which says don’t print gory details). This means they say they don’t do what Ben rightly points out they are doing. This is the hypocrisy of mainstream media at its worst.

    People like ppower are arguing about the right of journalists to write whatever gory details they want when the same journalists are ostensibly saying that they shouldn’t and that they don’t. From what I can see, Ben is merely pointing out the huge lie here.

  7. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 11:30 am

    The trouble is people keep talking about the rights of adults to make decisions about their own lives. But very often the people we’re talking about here are not adults, they’re children. Many of the Bridgend suicides were teenagers. That age group is very very susceptible to peer pressure – even in something as extreme as suicide. Think of how the parents of those children feel now. Is all that sensationalist reporting justified in the name of freedom of speech?

  8. Michael_K_Vegfruit said,

    March 29, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    People like ppower are arguing about the right of journalists to write whatever gory details they want

    It’s not a question of the rights of journalists*, but of universal speech rights and freedom of information. Those rights and freedoms do have negative effects, as outlined here.

    The way to correct those negative effects isn’t to restrict speech or to limit access to information, but to use those rights and freedoms yourself to counter those negative effects. See, for example, how the blogosphere here (in the UK) managed to force at least some sort of apology out of the Sunday Express over its story on the Dunblane survivors or the recent US sceptics’ campaign to force the Washington Post to correct George Will’s climate change denialism (which at least shamed them into publishing counter arguments).

    Maybe rather than wasting time arguing for more state control here, some of the people who thing the Telegraph got the coverage of this story wrong could try mounting a campaign to shame them into committing to treat stories of this type better in future?


    *I think, in fact, that special rights for journalists (such as shield laws), based on their professional status, detract from those universal rights and freedoms. They give journalists a privileged position and make it harder for others to respond to them.

  9. The Biologista said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Two relatives of mine have killed themselves during my lifetime. It’s hard to put across the damage that fact does by itself. It would be sickening to me if their deaths had been reported in the manner of this poor man. So cynical, opportunistic and voyeuristic… and the potential damage done to others by such detail shows gross irresponsibility. Of course journalists cannot be deprived access to such data and detail- they must know the truth- but in this case the motive for reporting in this manner must be questioned. I cannot fathom what benefit there was to this. Somewhere there are people grieving this man, and now they have to suffer him becoming an instruction manual for the propagation of more pain. Disgusting really.

  10. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    To take an analogous example, do we expect reporters on bomb explosions to detail exactly how a bomb was made? Would that be desirable?

  11. Ian Glendinning said,

    March 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Ben,
    Interesting that it takes an intensely personal story to get this difficult subject onto Bad Science, and interesting that many of your commenters react to your not-thought-through “censorship” call. This is the real paradox.

    You (Ben) “know” that objective information is dangerous stuff, yet science practically worships it. There are more important values than objectivity. Truth is more than objective facts, like “benefit” as the previous commenter suggests. Hard for scientists (and even journalists) to learn “what is good” when their whole value system is trained to ignore it.

  12. sponias said,

    March 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    I write many articles about suicide prevention. The most popular keywords for people that have suicidal thoughts are: “how to commit suicide”, and “suicide methods”.

    One of my articles has a very good ranking because its title is “immediate suicide prevention”, and most depressed people look also for the keywords “immediate or instant suicide”. So, I managed to get their attention using their favorite keywords, while helping them stop thinking about suicide.

    By giving detailed instructions about how anyone can follow the bad example of someone who committed suicide, this reporter is giving to the weak suiciders everything they need to dare giving an end to their own lives. Her irresponsibility is a true crime.

    www.scientificdreaminterpretation.com

  13. kim said,

    March 29, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    The one thing I wanted to add is that maybe Ben is being a bit unfair on Charlotte Bailey. We don’t know who she is; she may be young and inexperienced. It was the job of sub or news editor to make sure that all that detail didn’t make it into the final copy.

  14. The Biologista said,

    March 29, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Ian Glendinning,
    Whilst I question the benefit of publishing the gory details in a news report, I would not question such a description in a scientific paper if it were used as data. These are two very different kinds of publication. The first is meant to inform the average person, who cannot conceivably benefit from such detail unless it is as some form of entertainment. The second is to inform the specialist, who has the capacity to draw meaningful information from such detail. We are concerned with the first case.

    Your assertion that scientists are trained to ignore “what is good” when it comes to the reporting of verifiable truth is also false. Take a look at the instructions for authors for any major microbiology journal, for example, and you will find guidelines designed to prevent the publication of data relating to biological weapons. We are not oblivious to the potential harm caused by the truth.

  15. Psythe said,

    March 29, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    The Cadwalladr piece does ask whether its just a coincidence that the highest number of Bridgend suicides occured exactly at the time of the highest level of media coverage. Obviously this is not the case, but the pertinent question is did A cause B or vice versa? The piece does clarify that some studies have shown a statistically significant (p values not given) increase in total suicides following high-profile coverage though.

    While I agree that its abhorrrent that stories like this grace our newspapers, it is prehaps unfair to blame journalists too much – their job is to write “interesting” articles and sadly it appears that this is the sort of thing which pulls punters. I forget the details but there was one US newspaper which decided to only print “happy” news – it closed extremely rapidly. Journalists and Newspapers can hide behind the fact that, if they take a one-sided decision not to publish such stories on moral grounds, they will lose out to competitors – be that other newspapers or completely uncontrolled blogs.

    Maybe a panel at the coroners’ court should in fact make the decision whether it is in the public interest that a case should be reported or not. Judges are largely impartial – certainly high court judges and above cannot be removed by parliament without extremely good cause. This would avoid dragging families through additional unnecessary torment (while the idea of shaming bullying families may seem superficially attractive, if there isn’t enough evidence to bring them to justice via the formal system maybe we should protect them from unofficial punishments?) unless there was an overpowering reason why the reporting of a death would be in the public interest. This would not be the case in the vast majority of suicides. Anonymous data would still be available by genuine researchers wishing to study issues such as suicide.

  16. ehm said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Ben
    I’m not trying to be funny, but shouldn’t you include “details of further sources for help and advice” in your article?

  17. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Maybe also relevant: much that is reported in the media is not necessarily true. A possible example from the “true story magazine” genre is a recent medical case that was claimed to be probably the first case of a child receiving organ transplants from both parents as living donors, liver (part of) and kidney; the magazine connection is that I read about another such case in a trashy magazine about a decade ago, but I think the patient got one kidney from each parent. Actually that’s when it first occurred to me that some of the horrible depressing stories, photos and all, were maybe not true after all. So what’s the ethical position on reporting of completely fictional cases?

  18. Monkeyman said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I have reported from coroners’ courts on many a suicide in my early career and I shudder to think about what pain my reports may have caused relatives. And I really don’t know what public good they served – to editors on local papers, they are crowd-pleasing space fillers.
    I was once told by an editor to report on a farmer’s suicide and to include as much detail as possible about the shotgun injuries. I thought this in bad taste so I went into unpleasant depth to shame the guy into toning it down – and the full story was the page one lead. I left not long afterwards. I was pretty junior at the time and these days I would handle the situation differently.
    My view is that the media (especially local) covers stories of premature or unnatural deaths under the pretext of “raising awareness” about a weird disease or “warning others” about some kind of misadventure. But those messages are not really allowed to come through. The story is inevitably about the family’s grief – which makes the coverage an exercise in prurience rather than anything else.
    It’s not practical or desirable to stop the media reporting on inquests, early deaths or suicides, but I agree there ought to be better training for young journalists and some clearer guidelines for editors.

  19. chatsubo said,

    March 30, 2009 at 7:45 am

    1st rule of journalism – if it bleeds, it leads

  20. cvb said,

    March 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Sorry sponias

    www.scientificdreaminterpretation.com

    You have got to be kidding.

  21. kerledan said,

    March 30, 2009 at 9:54 am

    “ehm said,

    March 29, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Ben
    I’m not trying to be funny, but shouldn’t you include “details of further sources for help and advice” in your article?”

    I agree with ehm: just a link to the Samaritans perhaps at www.samaritans.org

    There will be some people who come upon this post, search for it, using search terms I don’t want to write here, who are in a distressed state. And it’s a pretty disturbing post (although well-thought through and fair).

  22. cbuckley said,

    March 30, 2009 at 10:46 am

    It is worth noting that, even though the Telegraph’s own article on the PCC adjudication (listed above) says that the article was suspended from its Web site, it seems to have been reinstated.

  23. Wonko said,

    March 30, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Editors don’t do suicide. They are simply not interested. How else do you explain the public ignorance around something that kills more than 5,000 every year in the UK? (compared, for eg, to around 3,500 road deaths).

    What editors do is sensationalism. Suicide by chainsaw hits the headlines because it is unusual. Suicide by hanging or overdose doesn’t because it isn’t. Suicide by lots of young men in a single area (eg, Bridgend – even though it is little different to other areas of South Wales) is similarly sensational.

    A code of practice might help – but I would be more inclined to suggest a boycott (see, for eg, the Sun’s rapid u-turn following the now infamous “Bonkers Bruno” headline. If we could hit the papers where it hurts (in their circulation), then we might make a difference.

  24. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 30, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Speaking again of not true: is anyone else finding the Cadbury Creme Egg adverts distasteful, where eggs commit suicide in various ways, the latest being seemingly a cult mass extermination? Some of the details are unrealistic, but the emotional sense of the scenes is usually of despair and alienation from one’s own existence. Oh, and then there was the one or two where the deceased egg was resurrected as a demonic zombie white and yellow fondant chocolate bar. Did that sell?

    And what about the little ones? They only have the life-size eggs in the adverts, as far as I remember, but if your cult -is- going to strip naked in the meeting hall and wait for the leader to initiate your collective destruction, which is what the eggs do, you don’t usually leave the children out of it.

    If you have been affected by the issues in this posting, you should see the state -I’m- in.

  25. Delster said,

    March 30, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    There is a point that i think a lot of people are missing here.

    In what possible way can somebody commiting suicide, no matter the method, be considered news?

    Surely the media should be there to present items of importance to the nation or at least to the demographic they cover?

    In what possible way does somebodies suicide affect me, the man on the street, unless i actually know the person…in which case would i want to read about it in a newspaper anyway?

    The only place i can see a story about a suicide being apt is in a psychiatric journal where it’s covered from the angle of what made the person do it rather than the gory details ie a case study.

    Given the media is seemingly trending towards more and more sensational stories maybe we should just bring back the roman circus with it’s gladitorial games?

    Maybe we could throw offending reporters to the lions…or would the be cruelty to animals?

  26. mikewhit said,

    March 31, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    You might think that publishing too much info might get caught under the existing laws about “assisting or encouraging suicide” – but then you might also think that those readily-identifiable bozos in the press a few months back, who were urging a would-be jumper to “go on then !” would get picked up under the legislation as well, but nothing happened to them, much to my annoyance.

    Better than drawing attention to unfortunate medical outcomes of those who attempted to kill themselves, as a warning, would it not be more constructive to highlight those who (like a poster above) say “I thought of trying it but I don’t feel that way any more and am glad to be alive – the urge passes and you can come through it”

  27. Wonko said,

    March 31, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Delster, you have a point. Although by that reasoning, the media should not report the individuals caught up in road accidents, disasters, terrorist bombings, etc, etc.

    The difficulty is that journalists/editors actively seek out “case studies” that match predetermined stereotypes. Remember that when you see interviews with people caught up in news events, they will have been edited – plane crash survivors who ask important questions about airline safety are edited out in favour of those who are visibly shocked or hysterical.

    I fear that as circulation falls, the media will go even further down this road, presenting us with sensationalist stories involving individual tragedies that shed no light on (indeed divert attention away from) the real underlying issues.

    I, for my part avoid buying newspapers and watching TV, I would urge you all to do likewise!

  28. mikewhit said,

    March 31, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Miniblog typo:
    “Has “nerd” lost it’s cool” -> “Has “nerd” lost its cool”

    … no apostrophe …

  29. DrJG said,

    March 31, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Much as I agree that this reporting was irresponsible, prurient, and against existing codes of conduct, I am more concerned by the governments attempts to allow some inquests to be held in private. Evil as this case may be, it is, in my view, far the lesser in comparison to that possibility.
    There is a (strong) need for responsible journalism in relation to coroners courts – but the important term is “responsible”.
    Ben and I, and the other medics here, have to be registered to be allowed to practice. Is there a case for similar registration for journalists? Maybe not for any reporting, but as a requirement for access to courts, parliament and other official proceedings?
    Of course, it would need a decent registering body, certainly better that the PCC, or, for that matter, the General Medical Council which appears to lack the confidence of either the public Or the medical profession. Perhaps this idea just swaps one set of problems for another set?

    I don’t know if anyone else has, but I have brought the continued existence of the apparently unedited story on the Telegraph website to the attention of the PCC.

  30. heavens said,

    March 31, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    I share Ben’s sentiments about pushing detailed accounts of suicides (or even car wrecks) into people’s faces.

    A headline or the first sentence of a news report on television or radio doesn’t usually tell you that it’s going to be followed by a step-by-step system for recreating it. You can’t always skip an article before it’s too late. Furthermore, that kind of technical information is not news, which is what I’m paying for.

    When you’re talking about suicides among people that are basically physically and mentally healthy, the message communicated through the suicide is extremely important, especially when considering the likelihood of copycats. “People” don’t use chainsaws to kill themselves: men who are losing their homes do. “People” don’t hang themselves in Bridgend: healthy young women who just had a argument with their boyfriends do. “People” don’t strangle themselves in Micronesia: well-liked sons aged 15-24 whose fathers scolded them for something minor do — and so on. When we report these incidents, a small number of foolish people will assume that this is the right way to respond to these situations.

    The model is called “social proof”, which says basically that if you don’t know how to behave, then copy the person next to you, and humans are clearly wired to work that way. So if a person gets low marks at school, and she swallows a dozen aspirin — or gets drunk, or screams at her parents, or cries for hours, or leaves school, or blames the teacher — then that must be the way people respond, and if this happens to you, then you should do the same thing.

  31. Jessicathejourno said,

    April 1, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Delster, the interest to the public comes when there has been doubt as to the perpetrator (examples – deaths in custody, deaths of dependents or minors, deaths in a confrontational civil atmosphere) or questions over a broader responsibility for a self-inflicted death (examples – neglect on the part of the social services or the NHS, inappropriate or dangerous harassment by creditors, business associates or acquaintances, extreme social marginalization based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation – etc.)

    You may not agree, and nor may many of the posters here . . . but thank god it’s not your decision. I agree Ben has come far too close to censorship on this one. The Bailey woman was revolting, though not remarkably revolting by the Telegraph’s standards, and broke her own code of conduct. And there’s a correlation between the reporting of suicide methods and the immediate popularity of suicide methods. Horrible. Unprofessional. Crappy. Dangerous. Yet another reason I only read the Telegraph for WI frugality tips.

    But these things aren’t a good argument for what many of you seem to want, the legal mandating and regulation of good taste, because there’s NO good argument for legally mandating and regulating good taste. Someone will have to legally mandate and regulate what good taste is, you see. And when it’s about something as sensitive as death and who’s responsible for it, the potential for abuse is staggering. Obviously. Right? No? Not obviously? Sigh. Bad Science has never made me so proud to be a journalist and a humanities graduate.

  32. mikewhit said,

    April 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    By analogy with the TV “watershed”, where potentially damaging material is placed out of the immediate reach of those it might affect, by all means publish the _basic_ story on the front page if it warrants it, but require the placement of any gory sensationalism/detail, that the newspaper owners think necessary, in some backwater of the paper.

  33. CaptainSensible said,

    April 5, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Is it possible that just knowing that another person has killed themselves might prompt another borderline suicidal individual into doing the same (one of my brother’s friends from several years ago killed himself recently)?

    Does the level of detail actually make any difference?

    If true, it would be a communal reinforcement of belief where the community of (suicidal) people never actually meet. It might only require one person to do what someone else is thinking about doing to nudge them into ‘what I’m thinking about doing is actually OK; therefore, I am going to do it’

  34. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 5, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t want to propose an identification, but I’d speculate that the more you know about a case where someone committed suicide, particularly someone close to you or close to someone who is close to you, the more easy it is to imagine doing the same thing. However, that could prompt you to think about the idea and reject it.

    Depression is a peculiar thing, though. I’ve had it, but you don’t always know that you’ve got it. It tends to be actually a more realistic worldview, I’ve read; a healthy state of mind is one of unreasonable optimism. So it’s hard to tell that something’s wrong with you, whereas if you are holding conversations with the furniture you can objectively understand that something is wrong with this.

  35. drgoodhead said,

    April 18, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    The media kills people?!! If only it were so glamorous Ben. A disgraceful lack of adequate health provision and support for those with debilitating mental health problems is what kills people. Families are largely left to cope on their own with their poorly loved ones and then the inevitable happens. Too sad for words.

  36. Charlie-D said,

    April 22, 2009 at 9:47 am

    You report that mental illnesses are sometimes the cause of suicides—then you say that suicidal thoughts will pass—what confuses me is that how any kind “science” can look at the persons “REAL-LIFE” Situations and from there, determine that the person is “mentally ill,” and then when the Real-Life situations do not pass, and neither do the “suicidal thoughts,” how then, can it be determined that a “mental illness” had in any way been involved, especially when it had been the REAL-LIFE Situation that had caused the “suicidal thoughts” in the first place—or is it the “Situation” or “Circumstance” itself that should be considered to be the “Disease”???

  37. Jane V said,

    April 23, 2009 at 4:32 am

    The awful truth – and yet some sensible calm: tragedy and sadness there is plenty of – yet, whilst biting tongue, so many people, individuated by whatever means , are released by their suicides from terrible horrors – to both personal and family relief. I speak from familial and professional experience. How to let go? How to positively act in a negative way? Many are helped greatly by early exit. There can never be enough support, but God help our souls, let them/us find a safe, CIVILISED and secure way to let go. To act to die. God bless you, the self-fallen.

  38. dannew said,

    May 8, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Hi Ben,

    I’m a bit confused by this. I thought you were all for the media disclosing factually accurate information?

    But here, you seem to be saying that you don’t want people to know the full truth.

    I know that in this case the report was not very nice. But life and death often isn’t.

    Maybe, rather than being free to print this kind of thing, you’d prefer to have a panel of experts empowered to determine what the media reports?

    This panel would be a bit like a ‘taste censor’.
    Only articles that are sufficiently ‘tasteful’ could be printed.

    Perhaps we could co-opt a couple of politicans onto the board? Maybe some few high-minded doctors? A self-important science columnist? And what about a Formula One boss with a taste for bondage?

    Because the people of Britain are too stupid or prurient to know what’s good for them, this panel could prevent anything they don’t like the smell of from being published.

    As a result the newspapers would be cleansed of articles which, though factually accurate, are insufficiently ‘tasteful’ or ‘useful’

    They would also become politically compliant and dull as ditchwater.

    What your former girlfriend’s partner did to himself is a tragedy.

    However, he did it and we should be able to discuss the fact that he did.

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