In the wake of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths, I think it’s important to talk about this.
In the immediate moments following the announcements of these deaths last week I did what many other did on social media, I shared details of suicide hotlines and encouraged people to ask for help. I don’t think this is a bad thing; whilst I’ve never been in the position to call a hotline, on the handful of occasions where I have experienced suicidal ideation (mild compared to the experiences of many others) I found reaching out and talking to a trusted friend pulled me out of that place, so I see the validity in taking a step and how it can work for certain people. But I also don’t think it’s enough to stop there. Not only does this place all of the onus on the victim who’s already struggling, when reaching out may be literally impossible to them and they really need others to look out for them, but it also ignores the larger factors across our culture that foster climates in which suicide feels like the only option. If we want to see society move forward, and mental health to collectively improve, I think we need systemic change too. It’s not enough to expect victims to help themselves, it’s about trying to move our world in a better direction overall.
The Media needs to be held accountable
When well known figures die in sudden or tragic ways that information usually reaches us through some sort of media outlet. As the bearers of this information it is vital that our media outlets follow standards of reporting that keep people safe. In fact guidelines for how to report on suicide have already been created. As these articles from Quartz and Vox report, the way suicide is covered in the media has a direct correlation with increases or decreases in suicide attempts in the time that follows (known as suicide contagion), and changing the way a suicide is reported on can reduce copycat attempts.
‘Don’t mention “suicide” in the headline. Don’t mention the method of suicide in the headline, and avoid a detailed description of the method in the article… Don’t “glorify” the act; don’t engage in “excessive” reporting of the suicide… We have decades of robust, replicated, international research showing that these details matter. When people in a vulnerable state are bombarded by reports of the specific details of a suicide, including the method, it triggers ideation and action’
The internet makes this problem worse, as outlets scramble to break the news and are increasingly creating clickbaity titles to drive traffic, which means we can end up with a lot of news stories circulating widely that don’t adhere to these rules. Britain sometimes does better when it comes to this type of reporting (although not always) due to a 2006 ruling on the British press reporting suicide, but the internet puts reporting from all over the world right under our noses meaning that, unless you’re only getting your news from papers, this isn’t so effective any more either.
However we can do something about this. We can be wise about what we post and share on social media, purposely avoiding sharing content that could encourage bad practice or put others in danger due to its language or the way it portrays suicide, and we can put pressure on media outlets to report responsibly. We can write, tweet and email our news sources reminding them of these practices and pressuring them to do better. If there’s anyone that deserves to be called out on this kind of thing, it’s those who hold the most power with their language.
At the same time, being critical when it comes to fictional media is important too. I chose not to watch 13 Reasons Why from the start because I knew it would upset me, but I definitely felt concerned about people struggling with suicidal ideation who may have watched the show. If something creative glorifies suicide, and gives the impression that taking your life can be the way to ‘get revenge’ or create change in a community, that can be problematic. If it very specifically and clearly shows details of the method of suicide, it becomes a cause for concern when it comes to copycats. After the release of the show a study concluded that suicidal ideation went up, and I think we have every right to demand better from our media. It’s easy for me, a full grown adult who’s in control of looking after her mental health, to simply choose not to watch a show like this, but it’s not so easy for a teenager who is still trying to figure things out to have that kind of discernment. If we’re in a healthy position to raise our voice in regards to media like this, I think we must demand something better, both in what we choose to support and by directly engaging with media companies and asking for better.
Our governments need to be held accountable
Let’s be real about this. Mental health can be caused or exacerbated by a whole host of factors including our genetics, our social experiences and our upbringing, but let’s not pretend that public policy doesn’t have a part to play here too. In the UK alone there are reports on the government failing children that need better access to mental health care (their policies to improve this are pretty weak), increased suicide in teenagers in London, extreme stress causing 1/3 of Britons to feel suicidal (these numbers are even higher when it comes to young adults), austerity policies having a toxic effect on mental health (if you want to understand this more watch I, Daniel Blake) and funding for mental health services remaining much lower than it should be.
We see a lot of these mental problems stemming from issues such as work life balance, debts, school pressures and money worries. It drives me crazy when people blame the rise of depression and anxiety in millennials on narcissism, technology or the way we were parented (eyeroll), whilst completely ignoring factors like climate change, political and economic uncertainty, and the waning hope of financial stability. Millennials have taken on 300% more student debt than our parents, we’re 1/2 as likely to own a home, 1/5 of us live in poverty, and many of us won’t be able to retire until age 75, and that’s just the beginning. It’s pretty clear the most vulnerable – whether it be the young, unemployed, disabled, single parent, refugee or somebody else – cannot be the ones to suffer most under austerity measures. Especially when Facebook only just started paying their taxes recently (sort of).
Meanwhile in the US, while suicide is still rare overall, rates have increased in every state, with links being tied to a host of socioeconomic factors alongside mental health conditions. The current administration has reduced funding for the National Institute of Mental Health by 30%, decreased funding for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by 9%, and revoked a bill banning gun purchases by people who receive Social Security disability checks for mental illness or who have been determined unfit to handle their own finances, with studies conclusively reporting that having a gun in the home increases the risk of impulsive suicide.
In both cases, the most important thing we can do is vote. Vote for representatives who care about mental health, are pro gun control (if you’re in America), and want to increase funding to mental health and other social services, rather than continue to slash public funding that ramps up pressure on already struggling individuals. Minimum wage increases, access to affordable health care, making billionaires actually pay their taxes, all these things directly or indirectly affect quality of life, which affects mental health too. Write to your representatives, go to local forums and speak to them in person. Keep mental health and quality of life on the national agenda, recognising that improving access and creating a more just system ultimately keeps people alive. Most of us care about the advancement of society, but I believe looking after each other is a mental health issue too.
Our culture needs to be held accountable
End the stigma: It truly is important to get everyone talking about and understanding mental health, as this fosters a cultures where people can ask for help and admit they’re struggling without feeling that they’re weak. Some of the key ways we can end the stigma are to openly discuss mental health and treatment, educating ourselves on mental health, and showing compassion to those dealing with their mental health, thereby fostering a supportive community in which others feel safe and understood. For me this looks like openly discussing the fact that I do cognitive behavioural therapy (and love it, you learn so much!!) as well as writing things like this and using the platform I have to try and normalise mental health. It’s also good to encourage equality between mental and physical health (you would go to a doctor for the latter, there is nothing wrong with going to a doctor for the former), and being careful in the language we use, both by not using hurtful or derogatory words to describe mental illness, and by not casually throwing around words without thinking. For example if you’re a really tidy person, don’t describe yourself as being OCD as a joke when there are people who deal with the realities of this condition on a daily basis, maybe try saying something like you’re uptight instead.
Finally, it’s important to debunk the idea that people are dangerous because of their mental health conditions.The majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems, in fact those with mental health struggles are far more likely to be victims. Let’s challenge our thinking on this and ask if other issues are at play when we see violence in the headlines (substance abuse and the effects of toxic masculinity are big players in violent crime), and let’s challenge media outlets if they jump on dangerous reporting such as calling perpetrators ‘crazy’ or focusing on mental health, which lumps in a whole load of innocent people with one person’s violent actions. There are millions of people who deal with their mental health every day and don’t hurt people.
Support LGBTQ+ rights: Due to a range of factors such as homophobia, discrimination and bullying, LGBTQ+ people tend to be at higher risk of mental health struggles than the rest of the population. LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, whilst almost half of pupils who identify as transgender have attempted suicide. We need to continue to support inclusion, acceptance and support for people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, both in the political and personal arenas. We need public policy that does not discriminate against people due to their gender or sexual identity, and we need to see bullying, rejection and isolation decrease. Again this boils down to who we vote for, being educated, the language we use (gay is not an insult or a slur and if someone uses it that way, shut them down) and the communities we create. We need to continue to push for equal rights and fight intolerance and discrimination around the world, supporting causes and organisations that care for the needs of LGBTQ+ people.
Reach out to your friends: As I said at the beginning of this post, sometimes it can be constructive to reach out and ask for help, but it doesn’t work this way for everyone. Often those with mental health issues are just struggling to get by day to day, so it has to be on us to look our for the friends and family around us whenever we can. You can start by asking if someone’s ok, but be aware that they may say yes when they don’t really mean it. If you’ve noticed people in your life who’ve become distant or withdrawn, go and see them in person. I love this twitter thread that describes how a group of friends came together to help their friend who was struggling, but it doesn’t always have to be that big either. Just sit with someone, let them know they’re loved, bring them a meal. When you’re struggling the simplest tasks become almost impossible, like getting out of bed or eating, so ask yourself what you can do for people around you.
‘The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured’
– Kurt Vonnegut
Here are Buzzfeed’s tips on recognising and responding to the warning signs of suicide.
If you are struggling and would find it useful, here is a list of worldwide suicide crisis lines