Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Let's talk suicide: rough thoughts

Today I'm reminded of when I was working in mental health in Essex and a directive came down from on high that we were to cut suicides by a third, which just left everyone staring blankly at each other - how exactly were we meant to do this? Did they think there were suicides we were currently ignoring and that, from now on, we were to put a stop to them? Did they think telling us to prevent suicides meant we could fundamentally alter the social problems that led to suicide?

Well, New Labour's all seeing eye has noticed that people have persisted in going round killing themselves without permission so they have decided to take firm, headline grabbing, action that doesn't cost a thing - banning suicide websites.

Some drone or other said that "Updating the language of the Suicide Act... should help to reassure people that the internet is not a lawless environment and that we can meet the challenges of the digital world." Except, sir, it is a lawless environment and you can't meet the challenges of the digital world. Sorry.

What are they recommending anyway? A Chinese style clamp down for our own good? Or posturing that wont effect the operation of these sites in the slightest... as usual it's the language of the former coupled with the reality of the latter. The most likely course of inaction seems to be a minor textual amendment from the current “aid, abet, counsel or procure” to “assists or encourages” which could be seen as a shift from criminalising specific help of a specific suicide towards criminalising more general advocacy.

Near identical articles have appeared in the daily papers, which all bring up the tragic circumstances of Bridgend, where there is no evidence that the internet is responsible for the spate of teenage suicides. You might as well say the press are to blame - except Labour needs media support so that wont happen. These articles - copied from the government press release as they clearly are - do not even attempt to bring critical faculties to bear, at least The Times tried to be journalists.

Killing yourself is often a permanent solution to a temporary problem and I'm by no means advocating it, but I would like to ask who's life is it anyway? Why does the state get a say in something so fundamental to our being as to whether we want to carry on living or not? Why do they think they've got the right to stop people making the case for suicide? Is that what this democracy thing is all about then?

If those who are considering suicide wish to use the internet to read around the topic then so be it. Not everything they find there is going to be a dry, pointless and completely ineffective "don't do it" message. Whilst suicide remains an unspoken presence, a guilty secret that those in danger dare not talk about, the last thing they need is to be told they are considering an unspeakable and obscene act.

I googled "suicide sites" and came up with this as the top entry. Which may well be an illegal site encouraging you to kill yourself - it's also quite funny, in a black sort of way. The second entry is a wikipedia list of places people like to kill themselves. Neither of these pages would be covered by the suggested legislation and I doubt many of the others would be either seeing as very few of them are based in the UK.

The Samaritans didn't even appear on the first page, although they are the first result if you google Samaritans, surprisingly enough. Instead of passing a law the government could have quietly paid google to bump them up the rankings... possibly more effective but less opportunities for false frowns and insincere mouthings on Radio Four.

Our taboos around death (numbered thoughts I did earlier) and especially suicide make it harder to deal with when a loved one does kill themselves, and makes it more difficult for those under pressure to seek help. However, not every branch of the UK government thinks censorship is the answer. In Scotland they are actively talking about it, they have to - they're the suicide capital of the British Isles.

For instance, Choose Life is an interesting site and I think it's right when it says that a "major obstacle to effective suicidal prevention is the stigma associated with and surrounding suicide". Which, it seems to me is opposite of the national government strategy of treating suicide like knife crime and basically whine about it without doing anything to make society *nicer to live in*. How about preventing people having their houses repossessed? Or would that shift the debate away from a vaguely immoral society that's to blame for social ills and start identifying actual social factors that lead people to feel so helpless and lost that they end their own lives?

Choose Life continues that "Serious talk about suicide does not create or increase risk, it reduces it." Which means you can't be afraid of the discussion. Even the discussions you don't approve of because "Openly listening to and discussing someone’s thoughts of suicide can be a source of relief for them and can be key to preventing the immediate danger of suicide." Note for Ministers: "openly listening" is not the same as the fake "we're listening" speeches you'll hear at the upcoming Labour conference.

I think we have to accept, with heavy hearts, that sometimes people just aren't going to go to some New Labour petri dish for advice - they're going to look to people they trust, who seem honest, and have a sense of humour, even in their dark moments. If we are to address the level of suicide in society we first have to give people the respect they deserve and recognise that suicide is not an aberration but a normal social phenomenon.

The sociologist Emile Durkheim described how one of the reasons people kill themselves is that the social bonds of society are too constricting, leaving them miserable, suffocated and unable to approach others with feelings that are deemed unacceptable. That when people feel they have no way out and no one to talk to they may well cause themselves to die. I'd suggest that New Labour's antiseptic and disempowering attitude to society, especially the poorest in society, would be a poor approach if we genuinely want to reduce the number of suicides.

Put that chloroform away Hazel Blears! It isn't thought crime on the interweb that creates suicidal thoughts, but a complex web of social interactions underpinned by the economy, by politics and how we live our daily lives.


Kaihsu Tai said...

Suicide Act 1961 is clear enough for me. In fact it is short enough to quote in full in this comment:

1. The rule of law whereby it is a crime for a person to commit suicide is hereby abrogated.

2. (1) A person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or an attempt by another to commit suicide, shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
(2) If on the trial of an indictment for murder or manslaughter it is proved that the accused aided, abetted, counselled or procured the suicide of the person in question, the jury may find him guilty of that offence.
(3) The enactments mentioned in the first column of the First Schedule to this Act shall have effect subject to the amendments provided for in the second column (which preserve in relation to offences under this section the previous operation of those enactments in relation to murder or manslaughter).
(4) no proceedings shall be instituted for an offence under this section except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

3. (1) This Act may be cited as the Suicide Act 1961.
(2) [repealed]
(3) This Act shall extend to England and Wales only, except as regards the amendments made by Part II of the First Schedule and except that the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882, shall be repealed also for the Channel Islands.
[Schedules omitted.]

stroppybird said...

Interesting post. I did something a little similar a while back

I think there is an issue about those left behind and yes there is still a stigma. People think they didn't help the person enough or that they must have 'driven' them to it.

I know that i'm still reluctant (and yes I did blog about it, but that is easier than saying it in person to people , unless I know them well)to say my father killed himself.

He talked and talked and talked and we tried to help but it didnt stop him. Its not always a case of someone not having people to talk or care.

btw Dave pointed out to me that to say 'commit suicide' goes back to the language when it was illegal, to 'commit' an illegal act. It still has that implication.

weggis said...

SOC convenor is not that bad a job is it?

Darrell G said...

Good post but I think one issue that has been missed out here is the total lack of support services for people with mental health problems which is obviously a factor and if the government spent more time on them not on banning websites then it might have more success reducing suicide rates....