20/02/2020 06:00 GMT | Updated 20/02/2020 11:52 GMT

My Brother Died By Suicide – I Know How Much Words Matter

The reaction to Caroline Flack's death shows how little we understand – or care – about mental health, journalist Jen Offord writes.

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Caroline Flack died by suicide last week.

On May 29 2004, two days after my final third-year exam at university, my big brother Stephen died by suicide. He was 25 years old.

Unfortunately, in the 16 years that have followed Stephen’s death, we don’t seem to have found the answer to this particular conundrum yet – how do you help someone who feels they have nothing left to live for? In fact deaths by suicide actually rose by 10.9% in the UK in 2018, according to figures published by Samaritans. We do, however, seem to talk about it more – which can only be a good thing, right? 

Not always it transpires, and the media has a particularly big role to play in this. Characteristics of reporting suicide can, for example, lead to imitative behaviour and particularly where celebrity deaths are concerned.

The guilt and shame associated with bereavement by suicide is its own very particular beast.

In fact Samaritans publish guidelines on this to prevent the occurrence of further tragedies – guidelines immediately flouted by the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun, which chose to ignore advice not to publish methods of suicide in headlines, when reporting on the inquest of Caroline Flack on Wednesday. The Sun – the same paper that was quick to publish pieces by senior journalists espousing heartbreak at the death of their friend last weekend and attributing it to treatment by employers and the Crown Prosecution Service. The Sun, the paper which runs an ongoing suicide prevention campaign You’re Not Alone.

Other outlets also chose to ignore these guidelines, though The Sun, which last weekend deleted a bullying and harassing article about Flack published in the run up to her death, reeks of a particularly odious hypocrisy.

But it’s not just the tabloids running pieces like this that fuel further tragedies and exacerbate those already experienced by grieving families. Straight off the bat were the Twitter users, ready to condemn the tabloid press, the CPS, and, curiously, even ITV presenter Ant McPartlin who apparently should have been given a harder time over his addiction problems when they became the focus of press attention last year. It’s a strange logic by those apparently claiming to care deeply about the mental health of others.

The problem with social media users is that they don’t yet seem to have grasped that they are also the ambiguously titled “media”.

In fact it might interest social media users to know that they are subject to the same laws as journalists regarding libel, for example, or identifying victims of sex crimes online. If the name “social media” did not give the game away, read almost any online article and find the views of any number of Twitter users embedded as additional “content”. 

What’s more, it’s not even just the case that the tabloid press serves the interest of the public, anymore – in a digital era, the public actively set the news agenda. Editors prioritise online content on the basis of trending topics, likes, and retweets on social media, so any mention of a topic can drive further coverage.

It’s not just unhelpful to the subjects of such gossip or unkind words in life, it’s damaging in death, too, and not just to their memories. Despite the many empty platitudes of outlets like The Sun, like other awful tragedies, suicide is often a punchline, as well. People don’t come to work complaining they’re late because some “selfish” person had a heart attack on the tube. No one recalls an embarrassing tale and ends it with: “Honestly, I might as well just go rupture my spleen”. You don’t know if you’re talking to a person who has considered suicide, or someone bereaved by suicide, or the struggles of anyone behind their Instagram façade – words matter.

My brother’s death predated the use of widespread social media, something I am extremely grateful for, and the circumstances of his death were obviously very different to those recently reported in the news. However, even on the tiniest local platform – one door knock, one phone call and a couple of articles in the local news – it was pretty damaging to my own mental health. Knowing that people would be gossiping about him and my family was hard enough, that for some it is now totally inescapable must be absolutely devastating. 

Being bereaved is a horrible experience in whatever way it happens, but bereavement by suicide has it’s own nuances and quirks that are particularly hard to grapple with, long after you’ve dealt with the initial, unfamiliar and troubling darkness. 

The guilt and shame associated with bereavement by suicide is its own very particular beast. I’ve felt like I didn’t have the right to feel the grief I had, because Stephen “chose” it. If your friend’s parent has died of a disease that they didn’t choose to have, their sadness somehow feels more valid. The additional tragedy that your loved one’s suicide was completely preventable almost doesn’t even get recognised. 

What could I have done differently? Would it have been different if I’d picked up the phone that last time he rang? Perhaps if I hadn’t called him stupid when he accidentally let the cats out that time, he would have valued himself more? Maybe people think I’m not a very good sister? Perhaps they’re right.

The fact of the matter is that mental health is more complicated than this, and speculation by tabloid press and social media users about the potential myriad reasons behind a suicide will do nothing to heal the wounds of those left behind.

Jen Offord is a journalist and presenter of the Standard Issue Podcast.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org