There’s been a lot of stuff recently about so called ’suicide websites’. The premise is that…

people searching for information on suicide are more likely to find sites encouraging them than offering supportBBC News: Crackdown on ’suicide websites’

Hmm.. reminds me of that old Samaritans poster…

Depressed? At the end of your tether? Feel there is no way out? Don’t kill yourself — let the Samaritans help.

I think it was meant to be offering support…

But there was also the idea that social networking websites may inadvertently be encouraging suicide earlier in the year:

“I’m particularly concerned about this false romanticism of the memory wall that seems to have set up on Bebo giving some sort of romantic idea of suicide and not conveying the huge tragedy and wasted lives that we are looking at”Madeleine Moon MP on BBC News: Web worries after suicide spate

I don’t think anyone should kill themselves. I think it is a tragic waste of a life, and that the people who are left behind can suffer enormously, as can the people who find the body, or in the case of “suicide by train”, the train driver can be badly affected. Then again, I don’t imagine someone feeling suicidal is in a frame of mind where they are thinking rationally to begin with.

When I originally started writing this, I thought the whole ’suisites’ idea was a bit of a fuss over nothing; that it probably wasn’t that easy to find a pro-suicide website, as opposed to one offering help. But when I was trying to determine if there was a better way to describe someone jumping in front of a train than ’suicide by train’, I found a link to a video site purporting to show…

…watch a guy crawl out on to the tracks right before the train comes. Needless to say the guy died instantly.

And we’re talking page one of the search results here. Not tucked away at some bottom corner. No, I didn’t watch it: I find the very notion that someone could record someone else’s death as entertainment repulsive — and somewhat surprising.

So I thought before I start criticising the research for perpetuating the myth that the internet is a great evil that must be contained, I ought to read the report in the BMJ myself.

Despite recent controversy, no one knows how easy it is to find sites relating to suicide on the internet and what sort of information they contain. Recent studies of internet search behaviour suggest that most people use search engines, that queries are broad—mostly composed of a few words and rarely including Boolean operators or phrase searches, and that users rarely look beyond the first page of results.BMJ: Suicide and the internet

Well, that seems a reasonable starting point. They seem to have a decent understanding of how people use the internet, and they appear to be starting without any preconceptions about what they might find. They then describe the search terms they are using, and the search engines that they are using them on.

I have to say, I was surprised how helpful these search engines were. I typed in one of their search terms to see if I could get similar results, but the sites returned to me appeared to me mostly factual things about suicide, rather than encouraging it. However, google did suggest to me that I might want to try the related search “how to kill yourself” (thanks, google!) which did then point me to sites with titles like “Cool ways to kill yourself”.

Hmm. Again, I didn’t visit, but judging from the title, I’d suspect that’s what you would call pro-suicide.

Anyway, what the researchers did was to classify every site found from “Dedicated suicide site: pro-suicide — encouraging, promoting or facilitating suicide”, through “Information site—Providing factual information about suicide methods”, “News Reports”, “Support site”, “Page not found or not relevant”. Each site was also scored according to how highly it appeared in the list (only counting the first 10 results).

From classifying sites in this way, you could assess the likelihood of finding a pro-suicide site for a particular search term across different search engines.

You can see the table of results for yourself, but just to summarise:

  • 9% of sites found are dedicated ’suicide sites’ which encourage, facilitate or promote suicide
  • 9% of sites found are dedicated ’suicide sites’ which describe methods but do not encourage
  • 9% of sites are primarily information sites with factual details of methods
  • 15% of sites are academic or policy sites
  • 13% of sites are prevention or support sites
  • 12% of sites are anti-suicide sites
  • …with the remaining third being scattered over the other categories

That is 45 sites found which encourage, facilitate or promote suicide. Forty-five. And as the dedicated suicide sites were one of the most likely to be found at the top of a search term, they would be up there as well. Certain of these sites would also contain…

…detailed information about speed, certainty, and the likely amount of pain associated with a method.BMJ: Suicide and the internet

The researchers point out that it is very easy to obtain descriptions of suicide methods on the internet: and not just from pro-suicide sites, from factual sites as well. However, the research also points out that some sites offer advice and support, that provide mechanisms for people to share coping strategies and so on, and that interestingly…

In England rates of suicide among young (15-34 year old) men and women, the age groups who make most use of the internet, have been declining since the mid-1990s, a time when use of the internet has expanded rapidlyBMJ: Suicide and the internet

The question, as always, comes down to how do we police the web?

One simple reaction might be to ask for pro-suicide sites to be banned (or at least penalised) in search engines. But if you are to do that — and I am talking about for adult use here — the question is, who decides what knowledge adults are and are not allowed to have?

If the state can order search engines not to allow access to certain types of content which are deemed inappropriate, then aren’t we looking at The Great Firewall of China again?

Google’s new China search engine not only censors many websites that question the Chinese government but it goes further than similar services from Microsoft and Yahoo! by targeting teen pregnancy, homosexuality, dating…

And then if you visit the ‘dedicated suicide sites’ themselves, you’ll find them saying things like:

…we believe that every person has the right to choose to take his/her own life, if and when (s)he chooses. We do not encourage suicide, but we also do not condemn it…

…a position with which I have a certain amount of sympathy. I believe suicide is wrong, that it’s tragic, and that it’s a waste of human life, and I would always endeavour to convince someone that there is a better alternative, but ultimately I respect the rights of the individual to choose what they wish to do with their live.

In my case, I hold this belief for a very personal reason. Years ago, my grandfather was severely affected by a stroke. At first, he made a certain amount of progress in recovery and then hit a brick wall; in a wheelchair, unable to talk, to dress himself, or to feed normally. He felt trapped inside a body that no longer worked for him, and he felt that he no longer had control over his own life.

So he took the only action that was open to him, and with the limited movement he had, removed the tube that was feeding him. At first, it was thought that this had happened accidentally, but he did it again, and again. It was apparent that is was his wish not to live a life he no longer desired in a nursing home but instead to return to his home and to die with the dignity he felt that he no longer had in life.

And I respect his right to have made that choice.

So what do we do here? It is against the law in the UK to promote suicide — but as these sites are based overseas anyway, tightening the UK laws probably won’t make any difference.

I’m not in favour of suicide; I’m not in favour of censorship. Is there an answer?

Or is it perhaps something that we can’t expect the web to solve, and that we shouldn’t be blaming the web for in the first place? Should we not be looking at the breakdown in our society and helping people get out of debt? Help people to make friends? Actually look at giving people hope and something to live for?

Or is that too much like hard work, when we can more easily just blame the internet?

One Response to “Suicites”

  1. The Goldfish responds:

    Suicide is a really weird one because it definitely does invite copycat behaviour; there’s various bits of research which link suicides in soap opera to an increase in actual deaths. Even reporting in the press is dodgy - seven teenagers dying in Bridgend are clearly not a random coincidence.

    But you can’t possibly censor everything that someone contemplating suicide might seek out - you can’t actually censor information that would be useful in committing a murder (unless that crime can be said to be incited).

    Personally, I think the Mental Health charities and other concerned parties should make an assault on the google-rankings. Just as the way to fight dangerous political beliefs is to argue the alternative - and like you say, tackle the root causes (despite what I said about research, there’s no evidence that media coverage, websites etc. are anything greater than a trigger - a fatal trigger, but still).

    And of course, where the law is breeched, it should be properly enforced.

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