Intended for healthcare professionals

Reviews Press

How “suicide” coverage went off the rails

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 18 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1243
  1. Raj Persaud, Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry
  1. Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals

    Mental health workers complain that psychiatric illness is possibly the most stigmatised of human conditions, but even within the category some stigmas are seen as more equal than others.

    Being placed on a section of the Mental Health Act recently earned boxer Frank Bruno the soubriquet “bonkers” from the red top tabloids. But now after the Berkshire rail disaster earlier this month, when a train collided with a car at a level crossing killing seven people, the British popular media remind us that suicidality remains perhaps the most stigmatised of all psychological difficulties.

    It is sobering to recall that the Sun had to shamefacedly retract its “bonkers” Bruno headline after a storm of protest from mental health charities. Yet after the train disaster, no newspaper was similarly forced to retract the opprobium they heaped on the head of dead hotel chef Brian Drysdale, who was accused of causing the crash by parking his car on the level crossing, ostensibly in a suicidal act.

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    The Mirror (10 November) went to press with the headline “OFF HIS HEAD” in 5 cm high letters next to a picture of the dead man. Alongside the picture was this less than considerate epitaph: “This is the suicide train killer Bryan Drysdale who spent his life in a haze of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine.”

    The Sun on the same day started its front page with what it claimed was the first picture of the “suicide rail killer,” adding beneath, “Last night a friend told how gay chef Drysdale, 48, became a sleazy, debt-ridden junkie.” Inside we learnt that he had “spiralled into debt funding a drugs habit—and trawled bars for gay sex, a pal said last night.”

    Another “friend” revealed to the Sun how Drysdale's accommodation had to be fumigated after he left. He said, “Brian let himself go. The squalor was shocking.”

    More intriguing still is how the newspapers had already decided what the cause of the crash was, while the police themselves, at the time of writing, still had an open mind.

    Furthermore, the major details of the story as reported by the press—that Drysdale had driven on to the crossing stripped naked, had made calls on his mobile phone, and had shouted at an off duty police officer at the scene who had tried to prevent the collision—were, by the end of the week, all being called into question by reporting in other papers, including the Independent on Sunday (14 November).

    According to one of the senior police officers investigating the incident, as reported in the Independent on Sunday, Drysdale's elderly parents had now been driven from their home in Birmingham by press harassment. This is even though no one at the time of writing actually knows whether their son committed suicide or was himself a blameless victim.

    The Sunday Times of 14 November confirmed that “police investigating Drysdale's background have found no evidence that he was depressed, say that he left no suicide note and have not been able to rule out the possibility that it was an accident.”

    The little research that exists on suicide on the railways indicates that if this was a suicide it was a strange one. Most suicides involving trains tend to occur in major metropolitan areas and involve underground railways. The victims tend to be destitute or homeless people who may not have the resources or privacy to consider suicide by alternative means.

    People who kill themselves using rural rail services tend to lie across the track in a specific way to achieve decapitation. It is certainty they are looking for.

    So the few hard epidemiological data we have do not point to Drysdale's fateful act being a suicidal one, though of course this cannot be ruled out.

    The rancour that suicide seems to provoke obviously arises from psychologically complex dynamics involving notions of selfishness. Even Freud himself argued that suicide was fundamentally an aggressive act towards those left behind—that it was a homicide turned inwards.

    But with the appropriate intervention suicidal people can be saved. One follow up study of people who had attempted but failed to commit suicide by jumping in front of London Underground trains showed that only around 10% of the survivors later went on to kill themselves, despite the seriousness of the initial method.

    The suspicion must be that any suicidal people reading the off-putting coverage of the unfortunate Brian Drysdale are now probably much less likely to want to discuss their mental torture with anyone and so open the door to help. Surely the public at large, and train passengers in particular, are rendered no safer by that fact?

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