Friday, 17 March 2017

Suicide watch

There's a long-running argument about whether disturbing behaviour shown on TV dramas and films leads to copycat responses and whether in the public interest it should be avoided or at any rate limited. Or should scriptwriters be free to depict anything they want, however cruel or gruesome or destructive?

MPs have just urged tighter restrictions on the portrayal of suicide, saying too much detail about suicide methods can prompt people to kill themselves - especially if the method shown is quick, easy and painless. They say a scene can still be dramatic without such "unnecessary" detail.

The Samaritans agree, saying that being less explicit would mean fewer people at risk from "irresponsible content".

It's a tricky argument. How much can certain scenes and details be reined back in the name of susceptible people, without curbing artistic and creative freedom? Should anything be officially reined back, or should we just accept that some vulnerable people will always be influenced?

If we agree with reining things back, is that the thin end of a dangerous wedge? Would more and more things be restricted "in the public interest" until scriptwriters feel they're being bound hand and foot?

Then again, is it right to actively prevent people from suicide, if they're set on it? If they think their life is so hopeless or so painful they simply want to end it, who are we to force them to carry on living?

And again, if such measures are adopted, in the internet age there must be many other sources for anyone wanting practical details. So how effective would these limited precautions actually be?

I don't have any easy answers. I want vulnerable people to be protected, but I would also fiercely defend artistic freedom. I need to think some more about this.

36 comments:

John Gray said...

It's a double edge sword....however when tv does a suicide storyline they often publish our contact number ( I am a Samaritan btw) at the end of the programme .
Our calls then go up in response ! Therefore there is an argument that support for those that may need it has been mobilised

Anonymous said...

A person who wants to commit suicide will do it anyway. It's crazy how everyone wants to direct personal life. I can slip on a wet leaf in autumn so should we prevent leaves to fall ?
Mia More

John Gray said...

Mia , I disagree strongly
There are some that will carry out their actions of self harm for sure but so many that at THAT MOMENT IN TIME want to die can be talked around to carry on until , hopefully, things improve . .
Samaritans believe in autonomy but we don't believe autonomous decision making can be made with someone that is mentally ill

Bijoux said...

I was also going to say that far more people learn how to do terrible deeds (suicide, make bombs, etc.) on the internet than from anywhere else.

I don't think suicide happens in a vacuum. We need to have better methods in place to treat depression and other mental afflictions.

Nick said...

John: Well, you're something of an expert on this subject, I guess. Yes, the end-of-programme helplines are probably very useful.

I think you're right that someone may temporarily be suicidal and can be talked out of it. In which case a TV drama that shows them how to do it might be exactly the wrong thing for them to see?

Nick said...

Mia: In general that's probably true, but as John says, suppose you know someone who is usually quite happy with their life but at that moment is untypically suicidal? Wouldn't you intervene and try to change their mind?

Nick said...

Bijoux: I agree we need much better mental health treatment. Mental health services in the UK are abysmal and have been for decades. We also need to look more closely at what causes depression, anxiety, suicidal feelings etc. I think in many cases they're a reaction to very difficult everyday lives - crappy jobs, low income, shoddy housing and so on - and if those things were remedied, people might be less prone to mental disorders.

helen devries said...

In respect of depression I had a G.P. when in England who believed firmly that if people were depressed it was because they had something to be depressed about - and usually that was down to poor housing, poor education, lack of opportunity - and all the domestic problems which went with that scenario.

tammy j said...

your posts are always wonderfully thought provoking nick. and this one especially.
but for once I won't write a novel here. actually am tired of my own voice. seriously.
will be reading every post you write but not commenting for awhile.
kudos to you my dear friend!
keep on keeping us on our thinking toes!
xo

Liz Hinds said...

Wise words from John I think.

Nick said...

Helen: I'm sure that's often the case. Who wouldn't be depressed by all the circumstances you mention?

Tammy: Sorry to hear you won't be commenting for a while. I always find your comments interesting. But feel free to do some lurking instead!

Nick said...

Liz: Indeed. Especially that people may only feel suicidal at a particular moment in time, until their fortunes change.

Rummuser said...

Someone determined to commit suicide will commit it no matte what. Whether they are helped along by stories in the media is a moot point. I personally do not think that such media portrayals can influence suicides one way or the other but, am willing to to go along with the view that says that they should be avoided.

Nick said...

Ramana: I think you're right. If someone seriously wants to die, they'll find a way of doing it no matter how many obstacles are put in their way.

Joanne Noragon said...

I am small expert on this; my biggest experience is living with 1.5 suicides in my family. My brother's depression overtook him and he killed himself, forty years ago. I think the counseling of the day was faulty. His daughter has the same disease as he did, and remains stable with counseling and drugs. My granddaughter, who is 15, has a serious depressive disorder. Her counseling has been intense, and to the point. I am so impressed with their understanding of my granddaughter's black dog, and I just carry on as expected.

Bijoux said...

I have to say I'm surprised that you and Helen's GP think that depression is based on circumstances. I've known women and teens who live very comfortable lives and got depression. Hormones can play a part of it as well as other brain 'malfunctions' that I don't pretend to understand. Like any mental disorder, people with depression shouldn't be made to feel that it's somehow their fault (I don't make enough money, I'm not smart enough to get a degree, etc.)

Nick said...

Joanne: I'm sorry to hear your family is so troubled by depression. Good to know that the counselling is helping to keep it under control. Given the high incidence in one family, one can only assume there is some genetic element.

Nick said...

Bijoux: I guess I didn't explain myself very well. I'm not saying that depression is always based on circumstances, only that in some cases it might be. I'm sure hormones and genetics and other physical factors can play a part as well. I'm aware that the very well-off and privileged can be just as susceptible to mental health problems, so clearly circumstances are only one possibility. And I'm certainly not saying that depression, or the person's circumstances, are their own fault.

Secret Agent Woman said...

Another one of those mutli-faceted issues. There are indeed, as John points out, both people who are hell-bent on suicide who will kill themselves no matter what and those who become suicidal temporarily. I have worked with many, MANY people who have made suicide attempts who were later thankful that someone intervened and they did not die. And depression has many causes including circumstances and biology. The Helen's GP (who is not a specialist in mental health issues, after all) is wrong.

As to the issue of what can be portrayed - I think that's such a complicated issue and I don't know the answer. But I think media portrayals of violence (towards others or self-inflicted) do tend to desensitize people. And in my opinion, kids whose brains are still in the process of developing are particularly susceptible. Adolescents undergo a tremendous period of brain growth in the limbic systems and pre-frontal cortexes,. During that period off time they are emotionally volatile and have difficulty with impulse control and seeing consequences of their actions.The emotional intensity includes increased aggression, including aggression toward themselves. Even otherwise well-adjusted kids will sometimes cut themselves during this developmental phase. They also experience an increase in social anxiety at that time and with that, an increased drive to look cool to their peers. All that makes them vulnerable to suicidal impulses, so I'm uncomfortable with depictions of suicide as easy or as a way to gain post-mortem love or recognition.

Nick said...

Agent: That's interesting that you've worked with so many people who were grateful that someone turned them away from suicide. Also interesting what you say about adolescents being emotionally volatile and impulsive. I don't remember being like that when I was a kid but I think there are plenty of kids who are. I think adolescents easily go to emotional extremes and as you say that can lead to suicidal impulses.

Eryl said...

Like you, Nick, I need to think about this more to be able to make an attempt at an answer. I do think, though, that there are many reasons for suicide, it's not only the clinically depressed who attempt it, sometime it is life circumstances that push people over the edge. During my 30 year marriage to a man I now know to be a sociopath I considered, but never attempted, suicide half a dozen times. In the last five years of that marriage, which were unrelentingly grim, I came to believe suicide my only escape route. But I stopped short of it due to fears about what it would do to my adult son. I don't know if seeing an easy way to do it on tv would have urged me on, but I can see that it might for some people.

The other thing I'm not sure about is whether this type of storytelling actually involves artistic freedom. So much of what's on tv these days seems calculated to stun us into silence, and as we become desensitized programmers turn the screw further. I expect these kinds of shows will peter out when the horrors have been exhausted.

Nick said...

Eryl: I remember you mentioning your dreadful marriage before. I can well imagine you would have regularly considered suicide. I agree that life circumstances could easily prompt such thoughts. I can also understand your being concerned about your son's reaction.

I agree that quite often these days shock and sensation passes for so-called creativity. Usually there's no need for such gruesome scenes, any decent scriptwriter can hold our attention and give us a clever plot without resorting to such cheap tricks.

CheerfulMonk said...

At the moment I can't remember any program where someone committed suicide. Now if you ask about murder, gun battles, car chases, etc. I would say, "Oh, sure, all the time." I'm not sure they're any better than portrayals of suicide.

Dave Martin said...

If they left out every subject from TV shows that might in some way influence a susceptible person, there would be nothing left. The average soap opera seems to deal with every shitty part of human nature, which is why I don't watch them, but they have high viewing figures.
It suggests that many people actually enjoy seeing portrayals of such things which is a bit worrying.
However, I'm not sure censorship is a solution to anything, including suicide.

Nick said...

Jean: Quite so. All those things you mention just reinforce the masculine stereotype of violence, cruelty, weapons, super-human strength, mindless bravado and all the rest. Even if it's women who're doing it, they're still acting out a masculine cliché.

Nick said...

Dave: Exactly. One restriction would lead to another until every bit of creative writing was thoroughly bowdlerised. And as you say, the soaps regularly feature all sorts of negative behaviour, which presumably a lot of viewers find helpful, but a whole lot of over-protective restrictions could jeopardise that.

Keith Smith said...

Nick, you may have noticed that I haven't been active in the blogging world just lately. I had to force myself to come on today and what do I read? You posting about suicide. I live alone in a big house, most of the rooms are no longer used, and live in just one room to save on the energy bills. All the friends I ever had are either dead, in care homes, moved away etc. No family left except a daughter who rarely phones, but never comes to see me. Now that I'm handicapped I cant get out much, the only people who come to my house now are the meter reader and the cleaning lady. I get so lonely and depressed now, you just wouldn't believe, having led such an active life in the past.

I would willingly commit suicide, but I'm a coward because I cant think of a way to do it without pain or somebody trying to revive me!

I know there are a lot of lonely old people like me in the same boat. I told my doctor how I felt and his reply was "Sorry, I can't help you, it's in your own hands to find a way out of this".

Nick said...

Keith: I'm sorry to hear you're so lonely and depressed that you contemplate suicide. It's easy for the doctor to say it's in your own hands, but when you're more or less housebound and you've lost all your old friends, finding company is not so simple. Presumably you've thought about befriending services and decided they're not for you? Churches can be good at looking after old people, but I seem to remember you're not a believer.

I don't think I can give you any useful advice. Loneliness is very common among old people but nobody is doing much about it. Certainly not the present government, which has little interest in those who are struggling with their lives.

Keith Smith said...

Nick, the only alternative is to become a hermit. I will move house without telling anyone, and put a notice up declaring "Visitors Not Welcome, leave or I will set the dogs on you". Then sit around all day waiting for the inevitable to happen.

(Joke!)

Nick said...

Keith: You and your jokes! Perhaps you should put up a notice "Visitors welcome. Do drop in and keep me company for a while. All except Jehovah's Witnesses."

Keith Smith said...

Can't do that Nick, that's religious discrimination, there are laws about that!

Nick said...

Keith: You just say it's self-defence, after a JW once clobbered you with a Bible.

BrightenedBoy said...

It would be interesting to see how suicides (completed or attempted) break down by age, and I'd bet a good deal of money that young people comprise a disproportionate share of the total. A blanket ban on suicide depiction seems extreme. Restrictions on programming aimed specifically at youths, however, might be well advised.

Nick said...

BrightenedBoy: I looked this up. The highest suicide rate (in the UK) is actually among men aged 45 to 59, while the male suicide rate is over three times higher than the female rate. The lowest suicide rate is among those from 10 to 29 years. So if anything the focus needs to be on men in late middle age.

I don't think MPs want a total ban on suicide depiction, just the avoidance of the practical details, like the best way of slashing your wrists.

Thanks for your comment, it prompted me to do a bit of research!

Wisewebwoman said...

I can't write about this having been so close to the edge myself and gaining more understanding from others who touched it too. I find most discussions far too simplistic when it is so very complex with multiple factors becoming confluent.

XO
WWW

Nick said...

www: I agree it's a very complex issue, and making any kind of generalisation is risky. We need to understand a lot more about why people get suicidal, but the fact that suicidal feelings are still such a taboo subject doesn't help.