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Guidelines for writing about suicide or self-harm

I like to think that no writer would want their words to cause significant harm. (Let’s conveniently assume the non-existence of evil people, for the purposes of this post…) I imagine that a writer would be devastated and shocked to discover that the way they had written about suicide or self-harm had nudged a vulnerable person to attempt or carry out either of those actions. Unfortunately, however, it is possible to do so without realising the risk. I believe that writers who plan to tackle these topics in a storyline would want to know if their use of language, characterisation or plot could indeed cause such harm, so that they can find ways to write equally powerfully and creatively but without undue risk to vulnerable people.

For this reason, I’ve been glad to collaborate with the Samaritans and the Society of Authors over new guidelines from the Samaritans on how to avoid unintended consequences.

Why were the Society of Authors and I involved?

I was Chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators’ Group of the SoA when Nicola Solomon (SoA CEO) and I were invited to the House of Commons with various people to discuss with the Samaritans whether they should/could produce some guidelines for fiction writers. (There have been guidelines for media reporting and  broadcasting for some years already but fiction is a different beast.) Nicola S and I were concerned that anyone writing guidelines for fiction writers needed to understand and respect the creative process. Indeed, some people at that first meeting hadn’t begun to appreciate the particular creative process in writing fiction in particular.

I was particularly concerned that anything that looked too much like rules or too prescriptive risked alienating many fiction writers who would feel that their right to tell the story however the story needed to be told was being undermined and creativity being curtailed. Also, none of us wanted to prevent or dissuade writers from covering suicide or self-harm entirely, as there’s a great deal of help that a sensitive and positive approach can bring to people at risk of these behaviours.

The Samaritans really got this and Lorna Fraser, Executive Lead of Samaritans’ Media Advisory Service, enlisted the SoA, who enlisted me, to give our opinions and have some input at each stage. It’s a difficult balance, because there really is good evidence that there are certain ways of writing about suicide and self-harm that can indeed lead to some people thinking about or taking one or both of these routes and yet we do need to be able to tell the story we need to tell. There’s a feeling amongst many of us that “the story is king” and that fiction writing is different from writing fact or reporting a news story, where guidelines can be followed more easily without losing the power of the words.

We believed that if the guidelines really were based on evidence – hard research – it must be referenced. The guidelines could not say “You should avoid X, Y or Z” without signposting actual research to show why X, Y or Z could be risky. Unfortunately, one problem is that the research itself sometimes contains details that could trigger harmful thoughts or actions in someone at risk, so the Samaritans have had to be selective about which ones appear in the online version of this document. But I was clear that there must be enough references for it to feel robust and trustworthy.

What are the guidelines and where can you find them?

The guidelines are here, in a really clear and concise 4-page document, covering the following topics:

  • Facts about suicide and self-harm
  • A description of the Werther Effect, named after the imitational suicides in Germany after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. This led to a large body of research over 60 years, linking certain public depictions of suicide to a contagion effect
  • And of the Papageno Effect, research suggesting that there can be a protective effect from stories showing a person finding help and overcoming their problems rather than attempting suicide
  • What to consider when writing about suicide and self-harm
  • Problems arising from certain portrayal of suicide (or self-harm) methods – one of the main dangers lies in the detail that a writer might include about the methods. (Essentially, the more detail, the more risk.)
  • Recommended use of language and a list of terms that are better avoided. Although this is inevitably prescriptive, I think it’s very interesting, empowering and mind-opening to realise that the following phrases could trigger unhealthy behaviours, undermine mental health and be harmful for some readers:
    • commit suicide
    • cry for help
    • using the word ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ in relation to a suicide attempt
    • victim
    • epidemic, craze or hotspot
    • suicide-prone
    • suicide tourist
    • now at peace

For me, a stand-out fact from these guidelines is this: “The World Health Organisation estimates that for every person across the world who dies by suicide, there may be 20 others who make an attempt.” (WHO, 2019) So, a more realistic storyline than someone dying by suicide is someone attempting suicide but not dying. In real life, that would represent 20 people with the chance to go on to live a full and positive life. We don’t write novels to teach a message but if I were writing a novel or story featuring suicide, that is exactly what I’d hope came from it. However, if for some reason I felt there was a very good creative reason to portray a death by suicide, I’d want to know about these guidelines so that I could do my very best with the story.

These guidelines’ stated aim is “not to deter writers from covering the topics of suicide and self-harm; the aim is to provide evidence-based, useful information to help authors avoid content which could be harmful.” They are written by the Samaritans, who are experts in helping prevent suicide and self-harm, not the Society of Authors or me, who are just experts in writing, but we are happy to promote and support them. I hope that authors wanting to cover these topics will see them as a really helpful resource for their research.


If you feel at risk of or are thinking about suicide or self-harm, contact the Samaritans now. You can phone free at any time of day or night on 116 123 or use any of the options described here. They are wonderful people and they want to help you.

If you are an author or publisher and want more advice, phone 0208 394 8377 or 0203 874 9186 or email mediaadvice@samaritans.org

See the Samaritans website at www.samaritans.org and the media section here.

There is a really interesting article in the next issue of the Society of Authors’ journal, The Author, by novelist Rebecca Waits. You need to be an SoA member to access this. But see the SoA article about the Samaritans guidelines here.

We have to talk about suicide but we have to do it right.

 

6 Responses

  1. Thanks Nicola. I work as an editor and I really appreciate having some specific guidelines that I can refer authors to, as many of them do not understand the impact of what they write about this topic. I’ve even come across authors who say they don’t care, and I’m so grateful to have a research-backed document to show them.

    1. Thanks, Clare. I *would* have been surprised to hear that some authors don’t care but then I saw someone on Twitter who claimed to be an author and who didn’t care, so there we go!

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