Understanding the complexity of suicide and suicidal behaviour

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Suicide is complex. Suicide is rarely the outcome of a single factor. More often, there is a gradual and increasing build-up of vulnerability linked to a complex and interrelated set of factors.”

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Suicide is a major challenge for public health. Approximately 800,000 people die by suicide every year worldwide; that is one every 40 seconds. The impact on those left behind is profound and long-lasting. It is estimated that for every death by suicide approximately 135 people are affected.

We have recently seen an extensive and rather sensationalised media coverage in relation to Caroline Flack’s tragic death. This includes flashy headlines, significant speculation behind the circumstances of her death and unsubstantiated links between separate incidents surrounding her personal life. This is not a reaction limited to celebrity deaths. We have witnessed a similar response to non-celebrity deaths such as that of Molly Russell where the national discourse turned to the direct role of social media in the rise of suicides among young people. So much so that Instagram banned images of self-harm for fear of amplifying young people’s vulnerability through exposure to graphic content.

Behind every headline lies a tragic – personal- story of insurmountable pain.

Suicide is complex. Suicide is rarely the outcome of a single factor. More often, there is a gradual and increasing build-up of vulnerability linked to a complex and interrelated set of factors (for example, early adverse childhood experiences, history of mental ill-health in the family, past or ongoing mental health difficulties as well as adverse life events). During an acute suicidal crisis, what really features prominently is a claustrophobic sense of being trapped with no way out and no hope that things will ever get better. Suicide survivors have described it as “feeling like a burden” or “feeling like others will be better off without me”.

Our work at the Institute for Mental Health highlights the importance of working with colleagues across different disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry, education, medical sociology, social policy and anthropology, to understand suicide and its multiple determinants. Our research is heavily influenced by the voice and insights of suicide survivors and their families so that it is acceptable and relevant to their needs; and, so that we can make meaning of the complexity behind suicide.

It is easy to jump to conclusions about the circumstances surrounding one’s death by suicide, particularly when this involves a celebrity. It is easy to over-simplify what could have driven someone to take their life, speculate about their emotional state, and ultimately reach a decision about what went wrong and who is to blame.

Every suicide is a tragedy. We call for a measured and considered approach to understanding and responding to every death by suicide by keeping in mind the wellbeing of those who have been either directly or indirectly affected. Think about the impact of the coverage on your audience and avoid over-simplification is what Samaritan’s Media Guidelines recommend for the sensitive reporting of suicides. As individuals perhaps we also need to reflect on our own narratives and response (or the lack of it) to such tragic events.  

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