The death by suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade sent shock waves around the world. There’s been much discussion since about how nobody saw her death coming, and how it was impossible to imagine how someone like her might want to take their own life.
Then, hard on the heels of the sadness and confusion came the inevitable calls to stop talking about it, and her. I saw people reprimanding others for expressing opinions about Kate, citing her family’s right to privacy, the triggering effect on other people’s mental health, and the possible copy-cat effect, among other reasons.
My beloved brother Stuart also took his own life 10 years ago, just after his 40th birthday. He was professionally known as Pip Starr, was a talented documentary film producer and all-round beautiful man, and none of us saw it coming. We knew he’d been depressed but never thought his life was in danger, so his death threw our family into intense shock and chaos.
In the years since Stuart’s death I’ve done a lot of talking, and thinking, about suicide. I’ve seen the efforts people make to police the behaviour of others every time there’s a celebrity suicide (or any suicide), and every time, I think this is wrong. I know my opinion is contrary to what some mental health and media organisations advise. Yet as I have personal experience in dealing with the aftermath of suicide, I claim the right to dissent on the following grounds:
1. Silence increases the stigma around mental health generally.
Suicide is usually only talked about in hushed and horrified tones, and even if this is not done from feelings of shame, it comes across that way. When people feel shame, it prevents them from both talking about how they feel, and from seeking help. Anyone should be able to discuss mental health the same way we discuss physical ailments: that is, with complete honesty and candour. People should feel able to tell others they’ve been suicidal as easily as they’d tell them they’d had a bad cold. Stigma around mental health in general is deplorable (don’t get me started on that), but around suicide it’s particularly extreme. Most suicides come as a complete shock to families and friends, and this is nearly always because the person who’s died was silent and ashamed about their feelings and intentions.
2. Silence after suicide can cause more pain to a family, not less.
I had friends who ignored my brother’s death and who, to this day, have never spoken about it. Yet I’ve noticed they’ve no trouble discussing other kinds of death. At the time Stuart died I had just, three weeks earlier, resigned from a teaching job to start my own business. While several colleagues from that workplace attended Stuart’s funeral as friends, I received no official communication from my workplace about his death. That really hurt, and still does, and I know others in my family had similar experiences. People already don’t know what to say about suicide so they choose silence: yet what on earth is to be gained for families from actively encouraging this?
3. I knew about copy-cat suicide, so with three teenage children at the time Stuart died, I was terrified of this possibility.
The only solution I saw was to talk about it. So I did: ad infinitum. I talked about the impact of Stuart’s death on me, on my husband and siblings and – especially – on my mother. I often still talk about Stuart’s huge loss to the world. I do my very best to make sure my children realise just how final and devastating the impact of suicide is, and how suicide is a temporary solution to a permanent problem. We also watched documentaries about the issue: the one that affected my children most was about people who jumped from bridges and survived, and how they all said that the instant they let go, they deeply regretted it and were so thankful their attempt wasn’t successful. My children are now adults and while nobody’s ever safe from the effects of depression, my actions have helped my kids understand suicide is irreversible and I genuinely feel it’s helped keep them safe. I don’t think most children receive this information or if they do, it’s generally inadequate given its vital importance.
4. I’m not convinced famous people are automatically entitled to, or can be afforded, absolute privacy if they kill themselves.
Of course, harmful personal information should be withheld as it should be in any reporting, and attempts must be made to protect children. Beyond that, stifling information once again conveys only shame. In addition, no matter how much protection is attempted, the nature of modern communication makes this withholding almost impossible to achieve. Someone will disclose it, and Google will find it. Stuart died during the internet age and because he had a public profile, there were a number of obituaries. Some were unthinkingly painful. For example, one man wrote Stuart had a “cheap pine coffin”, which came across as if we arranged his funeral on the cheap. This was untrue: it was, in fact, an environmentally friendly coffin, specially chosen as Stuart was passionate about climate causes. There will always be hurtful, unthinking people and in the end, their words add little to the much greater pain already being experienced. And if the shame around suicide were removed, the pain for surviving family would reduce anyway because stigma would reduce.
5. I wonder whether the trigger warnings and other rules we place around suicide discussions are counter-productive.
I disagree with trigger warnings anyway (except when they’re warning about graphic violence and sexual violence), because they can be not only infantilising but they attempt to prevent grief that’s not preventable. I’ve seen so much ill-informed information about suicide since Stuart died and even if I’d tried to protect myself from it, it wouldn’t have been possible. The very act of trying to avoid seeing hurtful information is in itself a painful and possibly fruitless way to live. In addition, since I’ve spoken up about suicide I’ve been regularly admonished by those who say I’m using the “wrong” specified language in one form or another. Apart from the heartlessness involved in this language policing, it annoys me that people make arbitrary rules around suicide that are derailing and may stifle conversation and learning.
Let people TALK, for gods sake.
For all these reasons, the lack of discussion around suicide prevents people receiving vital information that might give them pause if they’re considering it. Yes, I know people thinking of taking their own lives aren’t thinking rationally. Yet this is even more of a reason to give them extensive, factual information earlier. Because when reason goes out the window, it’s the cold facts stuck in a person’s brain that might, just might, be remembered, particularly if it has been imparted with no more negative emotion than information about preventing cancer or diabetes or even a broken leg might be conveyed.
The ways we deal with and discuss death in countries like Australia are already deeply flawed. And the continued too-high rates of suicide are evidence that a lot of what we’re doing in suicide prevention isn’t working and may even be counter-productive.
Perhaps – just perhaps – the silence around suicide is a mistake.
I believe it is, and I want it to stop.