I cannot remember another time in the recent past when the prevention of youth suicide and self-harm has led the news cycle to such a degree – as it has done in the past few weeks in the UK. This is fantastic and long overdue. As someone who has been working in the suicide prevention field for 20+ years and who has lost important people in my life to suicide, I never thought I’d see the day when suicide prevention would be talked about so openly (and appropriately, for the most part) in the mainstream media.
I have also been incredibly moved by the personal stories of loss that so many heartbroken loved ones have shared. Indeed, if it wasn’t for these vital contributions and the advocacy of those bereaved by suicide, I doubt that suicide prevention would be the leading political priority that it has become. The governments across the UK (and the many advocates who campaign tirelessly) should be commended for prioritising suicide prevention which culminated in a global first – the appointment of a first-ever Minister for Suicide Prevention announced in England last year on World Suicide Prevention Day.
However, as I illustrated in a recent tweet, my concern is that we may miss this golden opportunity to really move our suicide prevention efforts forward by blaming social media companies. By focusing too much attention on social media, we run the risk of ignoring the social, clinical, cultural and psychological causes of youth suicide. It is too easy, and inaccurate, to level the blame for youth self-harm/suicide at the apps of social media organisations. My fear is that ‘the social media and suicide’ headlines are hiding the fact that most people who die by suicide are trapped by disadvantage and/or emotional pain, have often experienced early life trauma and/or did not receive the timely and tailored mental health treatment that they so badly needed. That should be our focus – how do we keep our young people safe – offline as well as online – especially the most vulnerable?
Tackling social inequality and adequately funding mental health services will save countless more lives than regulating social media companies. It shouldn’t be an either-or, though; it should be both. In all of the recent media coverage, rarely has the complexity of suicide risk been conveyed (see Panel 1 below from Hawton, Saunders & O’Connor, 2012). Tackling social media use is only one part of the puzzle. The fact that mental health services have been cut, that the most disadvantaged are not protected and that there are unacceptably long waiting lists is at the heart of suicide prevention.
Of course, we should ensure that graphic images of self-harm and suicide are removed from social media platforms like Instagram. And I welcome the UK government’s efforts to ensure that Instagram (and other platforms) removes all such content – and NSPCC’s call to help keep young people safe online. These efforts are important because we know there is an association between suicide/self-harm and suicidal behaviour. Indeed, a few years ago, we asked adolescents about the factors that influenced their self-harm and about 1 in 5 mentioned social media/internet as a factor. This number has likely grown since. So I am not questioning the relationship itself. But the relationship between social media use and suicide/self-harm is weak and complicated; it is not the key driver for suicide; and for many young people, social media acts as a safety net in times of crisis when mental health services are not available. We need to be careful not to demonise all aspects of social media and inadvertently remove this vital source of support for our young people. Another challenge is that the evidence for what works – in terms of treatments for suicidal young people – is severely lacking. As a matter of urgency, we need to fund more suicide prevention research.
I sincerely hope that politicians who were so vocal in their calls to regulate social media platforms will be similarly vocal in calling for more research into treatments to prevent suicide. We need a step-change in funding for youth suicide prevention. Let’s harness this moment to highlight the complexity of suicide risk; to promote hope and recovery and crucially to maintain the pressure on government to ensure that their strong words around suicide prevention are translated into funding for suicide prevention research and much needed services.
If you are affected by suicide or you are worried about someone, Samaritans is available 24/7 on 116 123 or via email email@example.com. More crisis information is available here.
Professor Rory O’Connor
Director, Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory