Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Ed Miliband must be careful when he talks about suicide

Jim Waterson’s BuzzFeed interview with Ed Miliband is well worth a read. But the opening paragraph stands out in particular:

‘Ed Miliband was in Nottingham last Tuesday when a man approached him to say that his part-time job at a petrol station wasn’t paying enough to take care of two children. This is an anecdote of the sort Miliband is always telling in his campaign to lower Britain’s cost of living, but what the man said next was “chilling.”

‘“He was really, really desperate because he felt couldn’t properly provide for his family,” Miliband recalls. “He was thinking of ending it all because he just couldn’t make ends meet.”

‘“Suddenly bacon sandwiches look slightly beside the point,” Miliband says.’

That word ‘because’, which suggests a direct link between government policies or government failure and a suicide is a high-risk political tactic. High-risk in the sense that simple causal links are the sort of thing that journalists are expressly advised to avoid in their reporting of these deaths. Here is an extract from the Samaritans’ guidelines on the subject:

‘Approximately 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of death.

‘Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.

‘For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.

‘It is important not to brush over the complex realities of suicide and its devastating impact on those left behind.’

In Bridgend in 2007-09, police became suspicious that newspaper coverage of a spate of teenage suicides was leading to more deaths. Why? Because if someone reading a report of a suicide is encouraged to think that the circumstances the deceased person was in were the cause of that death, and the reader happens to be in similar circumstances themselves, then they may think that their only option is to kill themselves too.

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