Why You Should Shut Up About Suicide

It’s Mental Health Week over on Frenzied Fangirl. I’m raising money for suicide prevention because it is a cause very important to me. Please give if you can.

TRIGGER WARNING: In-depth discussion of suicide.

Recent studies show that there is an element of contagion to suicide. Those exposed to the suicide of people in their immediate surroundings are much more likely to take their own lives. Because of this, I feel strongly that the media should stop mentioning suicide as a cause of death.

Humans are pack animals. We take comfort in numbers and let ourselves be influenced by the actions of our idols. In modern times, our idols are often celebrities. Sometimes celebreties kill themselves, and unfortunately this brings about a ripple effect of copycat suicides.

I, personally, find it easy to explain copycat suicides. If you’re trying to decide whether to get vanilla or strawberry ice cream and you see the person queuing in front of you get strawberry, what do you choose? Probably strawberry, as well. There must have been some reason the person ahead of you chose it. Besides, they seem to be enjoying it well enough, so there you go.

Of course I understand that the press has a responsibility to inform the public. I also understand that it is becoming increasingly difficult to control information in the digital age. However, I think most people would agree with me that there is a gray area. Not reporting on a terrorist attack is bad journalism. Reporting on the exact way the attack was executed and what procedure was used to put together the explosives, is also bad journalism. We don’t want our newspaper to publish a how-to guide on explosives, because if “how to blow up an airport” was common knowledge it would most likely endanger a lot of people.

And here’s the thing: informing people about someone else’s suicide endangers them.

I don’t mean people need to be misinformed about it. Making sure people know more about the symptoms and dangers of mental illnesses is vitally important to preventing, diagnosing and curing these diseases.  The de-stigmatization of these illnesses is equally important. But letting people know that so-and-so who they greatly admired just killed themselves is a bad idea, let alone going into the details of their suicide.

Please take the following facts into consideration:

Over 800,000 people die by suicide every year. 

There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds.

Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15-44 years. 

Source: World Health Organization

Of those 800,000 people, there is undoubtedly a percentage that cannot be saved. Some people have been so deeply sunken into depression for so long that there is simply no way out. But for many people, this is not the case. For many, suicide is the result of a single moment of despair, and such suicides can be prevented. Let’s all make it clear that suicide is not a good option. Especially young people, who tend to have less of a perspective on the passing on time and are strongly influenced by celebrities, fall victim to copycat suicides. Teenagers are very much dependent on their surroundings for creating and maintaining a sense of self, and if others commit suicide this can often lead to copying behaviors.

I speak from personal experience. On the 8th of september 2015, just as I was clambering out of the depths of my depression, the Dutch writer Joost Zwagerman took his life. Zwagerman had a wife and kids and a successful career. He had been suffering from major depressive disorder for many years, but had also often led initiatives to raise awareness for mental illness. He had written extensively on the prevention of suicide, and the agony of outliving a loved one who has fallen victim to suicide. Yet, in september of that year, the Black Dog overpowered all of these facts and convictions and Zwagerman passed away.

The worst thing, the worst of all, was that I had respected Zwagerman for as long as I had known of him. He was an intelligent and educated man. He was old enough to understand the passing of time and place the agony of the present moment in perspective. He had enough experience with his own depression to know that his moods went up and down over time. Yet he was simply unable to wait for the next upswing. He couldn’t bear it a second longer. Perhaps, I thought, if a smart man like Zwagerman killed himself, there was something to it. Perhaps I should reconsider the value of my own life. The death of Joost Zwagerman had given suicide a face for me, had made it into a tangible possibility.

Aside from these negative effects bringing the news of someone’s suicide out into the open can have, I also doubt the news value of stating someone’s cause of death. In most cases, the cause of someone’s death is irrelevant to society. Even if it’s not, it’s still deeply personal information.

Maybe, if all media coverage of suicides was nuanced, maybe if stories of people recovering from mental illness also made it into the paper occasionally, maybe if depressed people weren’t already amongst the most vulnerable in our society, we could simply write about someone’s death and mention, as an aside, that it was the result of a suicide. Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world, and media coverage of suicide is a danger to many people.

So please, I beg you to just shut up. Someone died? That’s sad. That’s terrible. That’s devastating for his friends and loved ones. It’s also none of our business.


One thought on “Why You Should Shut Up About Suicide

  1. Suzanne says:

    Very well put. An additional thought, when someone dies, people have basically two reactions: “how did he/she die?”and “but I saw /talked to him/her yesterday /last week/a month ago!”. In my opinion, both reactions are based on defence: if you know what caused the death you can establish if you are at risk (usually you think you’re safe) and if the person was alive when you last talked, surely he can not be dead now (disbelief as defence). But when you are depressed and someone decides to end his own life, both these defences are useless. You can only stablish that yes, you are at risk and that talking to someone doesn’t mean a thing.


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