Sunday, March 29, 2020
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The censorship of suicide

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I DO not know exactly how Caroline Flack took her own life. Nor do you. This is because national media often suppress details of suicide methods, particularly in cases of celebrity deaths, because of worries over possible copycat incidents.

Suicide prevention groups, notably the Samaritans, maintain pressure on newspapers and broadcasters with extensive ‘guidelines’ on how reporting should be carried out. These include the suggestion that ‘caution’ in reporting suicide can reduce the number of deaths, and even warn journalists to avoid the phrase ‘committed suicide’, described by the Samaritans as ‘inappropriate language’.

As is routinely the case when public information is censored for our own good by those who know best, not everything here is as straightforward as it seems.

Let’s go back a few years, to the early days of Tony Blair’s government, when there was an anxiety to reduce suicide levels, and, in keeping with the methods of the time, bans were introduced and targets were set. 

To be fair to New Labour, the idea of restricting sales of painkillers to reduce their use by those minded to hurt themselves had been dreamed up under the previous Major administration.

The law to cut suicide rates made it more difficult from September 1998 to acquire paracetamol or aspirin tablets. Packs available in supermarkets were limited to 16 tablets, and those in chemists’ shops to 32. You could no longer easily buy more than two packs of painkillers from one place without a prescription.

This was of course a terrible nuisance – for example my elderly mother was at the time a major non-self-harming consumer of paracetamol, and it meant I had to make repeated trips to the supermarket to top her up.

But it was surely well worth it to achieve the target of cutting suicide rates by 15 per cent by 2000. Even if not all medical experts were exactly convinced it would work. See here, for example. 

The most recent figures on UK suicides published by the Office for National Statistics show that suicide rates among men fell from 19.3 for every 100,000 in the population to 17.2 between 1998 and 2018. A fall of around 11 per cent. Target not achieved, 20 years on. Among women, rates fell from 6.0 for every 100,000 to 5.4 over the same period. That’s 10 per cent down. Target not achieved.

But something else is happening. As Nick Stripe of the ONS put it: ‘In recent years, there have also been increases in the suicide rate among young adults, with females under 25 reaching the highest rate on record for their age group.’

You might have thought that was precisely the group the painkiller ban was aimed at. But then, the majority of people who succeed in taking their own lives do not use painkillers. The ONS do publish figures on suicide methods, and they show that while the share of painkiller suicides has almost halved from around 30 per cent in 2001, there has been a greater increase in the use of the most common method of suicide.

This is hanging or strangulation, which has gone up by a third since 2001, and now accounts for more than six out of ten of all suicides. The increase in hanging victims is much steeper among women, accounting for 46.4 per cent of female suicides in 2018 against 26.6 per cent in 2001 – a rise of nearly 75 per cent.

The ONS said: ‘Analysis reported in the academic literature has shown an increase in the proportion of suicides caused by hanging in the UK, particularly among women. This may be related to restrictions on the availability of other methods, such as drugs used in overdose, and to a misconception that hanging is a quick and painless way to die.’

I’m going to add a thought of my own here. Once upon a time, a young woman might neck a bottle of painkillers and most often she would end up a few hours later in hospital, on a stomach pump. Apart from the indignity, no long-term harm done. This sort of event was often referred to as a cry for help.

The difference from a suicide attempt by hanging is that hanging is almost invariably fatal. Not a good way to cry for help.

I have a horrid suspicion that a well-intentioned law to restrict painkiller sales has had the most terrible unintended side-effect. But while the suicide prevention groups are happy to tell you the words you must use when speaking on the subject, they are not keen that you should know much about methods of suicide. So, unless anyone breaks the self-imposed censorship, you and I are not going to find out how Caroline Flack died.

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