How to Write About Suicide and Self-Harm

The UK Society of Authors recently published a new factsheet on writing about suicide and self-harm, and I wanted to highlight it and draw attention to its main lessons. Stories are powerful, and writers consequently bear a heavy responsibility for getting it right and not doing harm, especially when it comes to writing about topics like suicide and self-harm.

About 6,000 people die by suicide in the UK every year, and the World Health Organisation estimates that, worldwide, there are about 20 suicide attempts for every death by suicide.

Research has shown that depictions of suicide in literature and other media can lead to increased suicide rates through a phenomenon known as social contagion. It began as far back as Goethe, whose 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther led to a series of imitational suicides in Germany, and it continues to this day. On the other hand, stories that show characters overcoming a suicidal crisis can have a protective effect.

So this guidance from the Society of Authors, published in collaboration with the Samaritans, is very important. And, even if you’re not a writer, some of the points are useful so that you know how to talk about suicide in a better way.

Here’s a quick summary in case you don’t want to click through.

Don’t Romanticise Suicide

Giving characters a “reward” after a suicide death or attempt can give some readers the idea that they can solve their problems through suicide. Try not to show a character achieving freedom or release through suicide, or having other characters see the error of their ways following a suicide attempt.

Be Careful About Describing Suicide Methods

Try not to make suicide sound easy, quick, and pain-free, which it usually isn’t. Nor is a suicide attempt something that can be quickly recovered from. Don’t give highly specific details of the methods used—you don’t want to inadvertently provide a manual.

Be Aware of the Language You Use

Some of these surprised me. I’d never thought there was anything wrong with the phrase “commit suicide”, but I now see that it gives the idea that suicide is a crime.

And, when you think about it, describing a suicide attempt as “unsuccessful” when the person lives and “successful” when they die is pretty messed up. But I’d never thought about it before.

Here are some other language recommendations:

The guide also recommends being conscious of promotion strategies and imagery, particularly if your book targets younger readers, and considering including trigger warnings or links to sources of support such as the Samaritans helpline.

Do a Better Job

Some writers may well resist this kind of thing. We don’t generally like to be told what to write or how to write it. Tolstoy didn’t refer to a factsheet while writing Anna Karenina, after all—he just wrote a story that was true to the character, and isn’t that the most important thing?

The thing is, these guidelines are not an attempt to control what we write or to censor free expression—they’re just there to help us do a better job. We can still write about suicide and self-harm, and we can do it in a way that is more true to the reality of it, that doesn’t glamourise or idealise something that definitely is not in any way glamorous or ideal.

As a writer, I’ve always wanted my books to have an emotional impact on my readers. I want to unsettle people, to jolt them a little. But I definitely don’t want to contribute in any way to the loss of a human life.

So I welcomed the chance to read the SoA factsheet and educate myself a little. I’d recommend you do the same. Here it is.

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