This is not a piece about Caroline Flack. We do not need to see her picture. We do not know the complicated reasons behind her death. We can all observe various parties blaming each other but none of them seem very interested in preventing further tragedies. If they were, they might ask people who know about suicide, and even follow their guidelines.
The Samaritans warns of the dangers of “imitational suicidal behaviour” and asks that the methods by which people kill themselves are not discussed. “Avoid placement of stories on the front page with large headlines,” it adds, “or making this the lead bulletin, as this can sensationalise the story.” While you’re at it: “Avoid speculation of causes or simplistic explanations.”
But why take any notice of experts? What do therapists know? Suicide is the clickiest of baits.
Anyone who has experienced suicide in their own life – as I have – will know you are left with feelings of confusion, guilt, shame and anger, and often the fantasy that you could have prevented it. What is so clear about the coverage of this latest celebrity death is that we talk about it in a way that is weirdly sentimental and slightly unreal, as if to distance ourselves from the incredibly difficult reality. To reduce a suicide to one cause, to refuse to talk about mental illness as something more serious than that which can be cured with an app or a bit of mindfulness, to repeat cliches about “so much to live for” are all ways of hugging ourselves close. Much of the last couple of days has been a way of not talking about the issue at all. Perhaps it’s too soon? Actually, it is always too late.
Suicide now accounts for more deaths than road accidents, especially for people under 35. We know that it is connected to socioeconomic inequality. But there is very little professional help and many people are so ashamed of their own desire to die that they never tell anyone.
How might we begin to talk to young people about this, because surely this is where we must start? In the rudimentary counselling training I have done, it is apparent that many young people present with suicidal ideas, self-harm or passively self-destructive feelings: “I just want to go sleep and never wake up.” They hurt inside for all sorts of reasons and they just want to stop that hurting.
In normal life we are scared to mention suicide, as though we might be putting that idea into their heads. We really don’t want to suggest that possibility to our friends or family. It feels awful. But not asking means that dark thoughts get pushed away, so that person may feel even more lonely.
If someone does tell you about suicidal feelings, or about hurting themselves, or even about not sleeping, the response should not be one of blame, nor a lecture on the devastation left behind, or a treatise on selfishness. Far better to simply ask them to keep talking to you about it. There are no guarantees here, but denying these feelings does not work.
To be with someone in this state is extremely hard. My admiration for those who do this voluntarily is immense.
We should talk about suicide with compassion, not shame. This may be asking the impossible, and I know that my feelings about those I lost are not resolvable. But we can do better. Sally Brampton said in her memoir on depression: “We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval: ‘He fought so hard.’ And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong.”
We are all avoiding the conversation that we need to have because it so painful. But the alternative is far, far worse.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist.
• In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org