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Internet sites may encourage suicide

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7206.337 (Published 07 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:337
  1. Roger Dobson
  1. Abergavenny

    Internet sites advising on methods of suicide may be discouraging people from seeking psychiatric help, warns a report published this week.

    More than 100000 sites about suicide now appear on the world wide web Many of these seem to condone suicide and forbid entry to anyone offering to dissuade users from taking their own lives, said the report's author, Dr Susan Thompson, senior house officer in child psychiatry at the Ealing, Hammersmith, and Fulham NHS Trust. Suicide is not illegal in the United Kingdom, but the 1951 Suicide Act prohibits others from encouraging the practice. This could provide the legal grounds for intervention, she suggested, arguing that these internet sites raise ethical issues about whether there should be some form of intervention or censorship. “As reducing the suicide rate is one of the Health of the Nation's key targets it could be argued that interventions are justified for public health reasons,” she said (Psychiatric Bulletin 1999;23:449-51).

    According to the report, some of the suicide websites are highly graphic, with copies of suicide notes, death certificates, and colour photographs. There are also electronic bulletin boards, where suicide notes or suicidal intentions are posted, and one site alone has 900 postings a month, mostly from people considering suicide “There are many news groups and bulletin boards on the net which positively advocate suicide and discourage individuals from seeking psychiatric help, dismissing it as worse than useless,” said Dr Thompson.

    The report suggested that young people are especially vulnerable to these kinds of influence: “Individuals who access the Net are qualitatively different to other individuals. Research already indicates they are psychologically more vulnerable with higher risk taking behaviour, substance abuse and depression scores over control subjects. Most are also 14 to 24, an age group with a high suicide rate and low peer support,” it says.

    One of the suicide sites supporting suicide is now setting up what is described as the world's first suicide assistance telephone hotline that will include touch key access to an A-Z of suicide techniques The so called “Church of Euthanasia” site claims to have approval for the line, where callers will also be offered the opportunity of making a final recorded message.

    Dr Thompson cited research showing the potential impact of these sites. In one study, researchers spent three months tracking the progress of three people who posted notices on one bulletin board. “In two out of the three cases studied, following the receipt of very specific relevant information—for example, precisely how to aim the gun in the mouth for maximum effect along with messages of encouragement and support—the suicides were apparently successful via the use of firearms and self poisoning,” she reported.

    The report also pointed out that the net could be used to help identify and communicate with those at risk of suicide, because sites encourage self disclosure.

    A spokesman for the Samaritans (www.samaritans.org.uk) com-mented: Last year we received more than 15 000 emails from people who wanted to contact us, and this year we are expecting 25 000. Of those whose age we know, over half were under 25.

    Of those who contact us by email, 51% said they were feeling suicidal at the time of the contact. That compares to less than 25% of telephone calls. We believe that men find it more difficult to express themselves, and it may be that the internet is an easier means by which men can actually express how they feel.”

    The Church of Euthanasia is at www.enviroweb.org/coe/

    Figure1

    The Church of Euthanasia website will list suicide techniques

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