Today is #WorldSuicidePreventionDay, which each year sparks conversations about mental health and reminds us to reach out to people who may be struggling to cope. More than 6,000 people die by suicide every year – an average of 18 a day – in the UK and Ireland, and over 800,000 people take their lives each year across the world.
The media takes an increasing amount of care when depicting mental health issues like eating disorders and depression, but the way suicide is discussed and reported is often offensive and archaic. A new campaign, Talking Suicide, is calling on editors to stop using the phrase "commit suicide" and to pay greater attention to the language used in the reporting of suicide.
A letter to the media, co-written by Labour MP Luciana Berger and journalist and mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon, has received backing from 130 signatories including politicians, authors, actors and mental health professionals and campaigners. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, broadcaster Stephen Fry, DJ Lauren Laverne and Mind's chief executive Paul Farmer CBE are among its supporters.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and Luciana has teamed up with Bryony Gordon (mental health campaigner, author & journalist) to change how we talk about suicide. Read more about the campaign: https://t.co/ZWVRVb2BV8#talkingsuicide #WSPD2018 ^MT pic.twitter.com/BbBaD5urVv— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) September 10, 2018
This is what i’ve been working on for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay2018 w/ @lucianaberger. With thanks to @samaritans @MindCharity @stephenfry @ZoeTheBall @Misskeeleyhawes @campbellclaret @edballs @Fearnecotton @matthaig1 @_NatashaDevon @DavidHarewood @ShappiKhorsandi and many more https://t.co/zqigz0pbZ4— Bryony Gordon (@bryony_gordon) September 9, 2018
"We still read that a person has 'committed suicide', suggesting suicide is either a sin or a crime, or both. It has not been a crime in the UK since 1961," the letter reads. "This form of words can imply that to take one’s own life is a selfish, cowardly, criminal or irreligious act, rather than the manifestation of extreme mental distress and unbearable pain.
"It also adds to the stigma and feelings of shame that prevent people from reaching out for help. We call on all sections of the media to replace the phrase ‘commit suicide’ with alternatives, such as 'died by suicide', and to embed this change into their style guides. We too promise to use this language when talking about the subject."
The media is also urged to avoid detailed descriptions of methods and speculation about the cause of suicide, which have the effect of oversimplifying the situation. "We often read speculation about the cause of suicide, linking a death to a previous event such as the loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship or bullying. It is impossible to say with any certainty why someone takes their own life."
Berger and Gordon also highlight that reports of celebrity deaths "carry greater risk of encouraging others due to over-identification by vulnerable people". They cite the suicide of actor Robin Williams and a recent study which found a 10% increase in people taking their own lives after his death. "This emphasises the responsibility that we all have when it comes to talking about suicide," the letter continued.
The campaign has gained widespread support on Twitter from public figures and members of the public alike, under the hashtag #TalkingSuicide.
Words matter. They stigmatise and can stop people getting help. So this World Suicide Prevention Day, I'm supporting the campaign to change the language we use when talking about suicide. https://t.co/ekp1P2hZOg #talkingsuicide #worldsuicidepreventionday2018— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) September 10, 2018
Very pleased to be co-signatory of this letter led by @lucianaberger & @bryony_gordon to campaign to change how we talk about suicide in the media and elsewhere @guardian RT to show your support. #talkingsuicide #challengingstigma #WorldSuicidePreventionDay2018 https://t.co/cxYvUkhsGK— angelasamata (@Angelasamata) September 9, 2018
In a powerful and personal Twitter thread on Friday, author and journalist Poorna Bell, who signed the letter, explained why she's campaigning for an end to the phrase "commit suicide".
In believing this, we whitewash and ignore and underplay the severe mental distress a person is in, to the point where they couldn’t bear living a minute longer.— Poorna Bell (@poornabell) September 7, 2018
That word underpins the old stigmas and prejudices. And the most simple thing which is not a big ask, is to change our language. If we can change language around gender, around mental health, we can do it here too.— Poorna Bell (@poornabell) September 7, 2018
When my husband died in this manner, I knew the world saw his death as shameful. It wasn’t shameful. He was a good man, and he didn’t commit anything. He was utterly consumed by an illness that he didn’t ask for. Please respect this.— Poorna Bell (@poornabell) September 7, 2018
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.