‘Why I believe we can all help beat suicide’

Tragic: There was a 10% increase in suicides in the months following Robin Williams’s death.
by Bryony Gordon

Journalist and columnist for The Telegraph and bestselling author. Gordon’s memoir Mad Girl chronicles her struggles with OCD, bulimia and alopecia. Her podcast Mad World interviews guests on a range of mental health topics.

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, columnist Bryony Gordon launched a campaign to transform how we talk about suicide. Small changes can make a big difference, and everyone can play a part.

One of the most unhelpful things we are taught as children is that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us. This is not true. Words do hurt us — and move us, and inspire us, and change us. Words are more powerful than sticks and stones. Which is why, on World Suicide Prevention Day, I have joined with MP Luciana Berger to launch a campaign that aims to change the way we talk about suicide.

Suicide is responsible for the deaths of about 6,000 people in the UK each year. Last week, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that male suicide rates were at their lowest since records began — but it is still the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

The ONS numbers also showed that teenage suicides in England and Wales had risen 67% since 2010. But campaigners say that no suicide is inevitable, and last week Liverpool City Region set out the ambition to be the first area in the UK with zero suicides.

Numbers also showed that teenage suicides in England and Wales had risen 67% since 2010.

This seems like a huge task, and it is. But we can all help contribute to this noble goal. The most simple way is by changing the way we talk about suicide.

About a year and a half ago I was at a charity walk organised by the suicide prevention charity CLASP. A woman approached me and asked if I could ask my colleagues to stop using the term “committed suicide”. Her husband had ended his life, and she and other people bereaved by suicide found the phrase offensive because it implied that suicide was a crime — which it was, in this country, until 1961.

But this is not just about avoiding offence. Some argue that, more importantly, it adds to the stigma and feelings of shame that prevent people who experience suicidal thoughts from asking for help.

I winced when she told me, knowing that I had, for years, been using this phrase, contributing to the miasma of myth about suicide without even realising it. I changed my terminology to the suggested “died by suicide”, and began to notice just how often the phrase “committed suicide” was used.

Having witnessed the positive effect that responsible reporting on mental health issues can have, it seemed natural that the next step should be to try to get the style changes that had long been suggested by groups such as Samaritans and Mind embedded into journalistic culture.

A recent study, which examined reports about the suicide of Robin Williams, identified a 10% increase in people taking their own lives in the months following his death. There is a difficult balance between reporting facts and introducing elements of the story into the public domain that may encourage others to emulate what they have read.

This is known as the Werther effect, because of the spate of imitational suicides that were said to have taken place after the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

But we also know about the Papageno effect — the effect that mass media can have by presenting non-suicide alternatives to crises. Research shows that responsible stories, such as hopeful journeys of recovery, can actually help to reduce suicide.

So Luciana Berger and I decided to compile a letter to the nation’s media outlets, reminding them of the positive power they have. We are addressing journalists, but the letter is really a call to arms for everyone, and a reminder that we can all play a small part in the campaign to save people from suicide.

This is an extract from an article published in The Telegraph. Find the full version in Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Is there a social stigma attached to mental illness?


  1. In pairs or small groups, discuss different ways that young people can be encouraged to talk about their mental health. Share your ideas with the class. As a group write down five pieces of advice you would give to somebody who is struggling with their mental health.

Word Watch

Certain to happen or unavoidable.
Deprived of close relationship with a friend or family member because of their death.
An unhealthy or unpleasant atmosphere.
Charity which provides emotional support to anyone in emotional distress or at risk of suicide. See the link in Become An Expert.
Robin Williams
American comedian and actor, famous for his roles in Mrs Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting and Jumanji. He died by suicide in 2014.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German novelist, poet and statesman.
Papageno effect
Named after Papageno from Mozart’s Magic Flute, who was contemplating suicide until others showed him a way to resolve his problems.

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