On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime!
That o’er the channel rear’d, half way at sea
The mariner at early morning hails,
I would recline; while Fancy should go forth,
And represent the strange and awful hour
Of vast concussion; when the Omnipotent
Stretch’d forth his arm, and rent the solid hills,
Bidding the impetuous main flood rush between
The rifted shores, and from the continent
Eternally divided this green isle.
So wrote Charlotte Turner Smith in her poem about the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 530 feet above sea level. Beachy head is not only one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on the English coast, but one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world.
A few days ago, a police investigation was launched after a woman reported a wheelchair-bound friend had asked her to leave her at the edge of Beachy Head.This raises a number of issues.
1) Privacy is being eroded in Britain for the ‘greater good.’ Before, one had to be discreet who one spoke to about things such as ending one’s own life. Soon, however, emails and tweets may come under scrutiny by the authorities.
2) Would the friend have been committing a crime? Yes. If done with the knowledge that the wheelchair-bound person intended to end their life by suicide, they would have materially aided and abetted. This also raises the concern that an able-bodied person could have managed it alone, and so the wheelchair-bound individual was ‘discriminated against’ on the basis of disability. The severity of the sentence, should the DPP decide to prosecute (it would be up to him whether to raise a prosecution) might or might not be lenient, but a prison sentence would be a possibility.
3) It is a beautiful spot. Should it be fenced off and its natural wonder obscured in order to ‘prevent’ such suicides? On the face of it, yes, at least one could argue – but the widespread evidence is that if someone, rationally or otherwise, decides to end their life by suicide, they will do so. It is simply a case of one means over another. Preventing suicides at Beachy Head might make some authorities feel better, but at the expense of ignoring the fact that those same people would commit suicide in perhaps an even more desirable way – for instance by hanging or noxious chemicals.
4) Restriction of suicide ‘how-to’ information can also push people towards undesirable ways of ending their own life, or searching underground websites with less than reliable information.
5) Suicide prevention needs to differentiate between those with a clear and rational wish to end unrelievable and unbearable suffering (physical or mental), and those with mental suffering caused by despair, social injustice, or depression, but who can be helped to live. Openness about a desire for rational suicide would assist this process rather than discouraging people to say how they feel.