Thursday, February 21, 2008

Too easy to blame the internet for suicides in Wales

Photo by Guillermo Esteves (Flickr)

This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 20th February 2008:

The spate of teenage deaths by suicide in Wales has spurred speculation that the internet – especially tributes on social networking websites – has played a role in what has been going on.

The speculation has been rejected by the police. “They were all young people with big issues,” a police spokesman said. “There are a constellation of factors influencing these young people.”

So where has speculation about internet suicide pacts come from? Partly it comes from the belief that suicide pacts do exist and that the internet plays a role in these in some parts of the world.

Deaths arising from suicide pacts are a major source of concern in Japan where this phenomenon has been most reported. There, even complete strangers have taken their own lives as part of pacts made over the internet.

Closer to home, last summer saw the death of two young irish men who made a suicide pact over the internet.

Research in Britain suggests that about 12 couples a year take their lives in what might be called a suicide pact but this is not confined to teenagers and can be a response to depression or incurable illness.

But such pacts have existed since before the internet came along. So have copycat suicides. When singer Kurt Cobain took his own life in 1994, some fans also committed suicide. In 1994, hardly anybody used the internet, most people didn’t know what it was and social networking sites such as Bebo and My Space had not even been imagined.

There have been claims that tributes on the networking sites to those who killed themselves have led others to do the same. The theory sounds plausible until you consider that such tributes are only a part, indeed a small part, of the mourning that surrounds a death.

If you attend the funeral of somebody who has committed suicide, you will hear the same tributes that are heard at funerals for other people. There may be an underlying, unspoken sense of anger at the person who has destroyed the life of his or her family by committing this stupid act but a desperate attempt is made to act as though this is a normal funeral.

Such funerals are, needless to say, very emotional especially if a young person has died. I would suggest that they are far more emotional than a website tribute can be – yet I am unaware of any evidence that they lead to copycat deaths.

Similarly are we to say that the loving death notices placed in newspapers lead other people to think of suicide, even when we know that this is how the person died?

To work out whether the suicides in Wales are linked, we need to know whether these represent a rise in such deaths compared to previous periods or whether we are seeing a statistical cluster of largely unrelated deaths.

Suicides among young men in England and Wales are at their lowest level for three decades and among young women they are at their lowest level since 1968. This makes the deaths in Wales stand out even more.

The internet is open in the sense that suicide pacts made online are fairly easy for the police to uncover forensically . It is likely that such pacts, if behind the deaths in Wales, would have been discovered by now.

Following a death by suicide the question that haunts family and friends for years afterwards is, Why did he or she do it? Could we have prevented it? Usually there will never be a satisfactory answer to the question and families have to accept this fact before they can move on.

In the long run I suspect that there will never be a satisfactory explanation for these pointless deaths in Wales either.

No comments: