Media reporting has often been blamed for suicide fads. A rock star dies by barbiturate poisoning and others follow. Barbiturate poisoning was generally peaceful and is less common now only due to the difficulty of obtaining the drugs. But other suicide fads tend to be copycat suicide methods independent of whether they are painless.
In various Asian countries, ‘popular’ methods may include poisonous plants or pesticides – both carrying a high risk of painful death. Governments go to great lengths to remove things like strong sleeping tablets from general circulation but are reluctant to withdraw commonly occurring substances or those with high commercial value.
Over 50 investigations into imitative suicides have been conducted. Systematic reviews of these studies have consistently drawn the same conclusion: media reporting of suicide can lead to imitative suicidal behaviours. But does this ignore the question of ‘least worst suicides’? However much or however little publicity a newspaper or website gives to the method used in a suicide, it is rare (if ever) that the same article will point out a less painful method. A method that maybe would not have prevented suicide by a suicidal person reading it, but at least reduced their suffering at the end. It could be that some suicidees feel that the pain they go through to die highlights their unheeded cry for help: yet studies show that many of those who try to commit suicide, for instance, using paracetamol would not have attempted it if they had known how unreliable and painful it could be. Or at least not used paracetamol. (Paracetamol – acetaminophen as it is called in the U.S. – is not only one of the most common methods in the U.K. but one of the least reliable and least painless.)
Similarly with pesticides or – to address a fad that is starting to engulf the West – hydrogen sulfide (or ‘chemical suicide’ as it is often called). While usually lethal, it risks severe distress if the method doesn’t work fast enough. A crime service report lists some of the effects:
• Exposure to low concentrations can cause eye irritation, sore throat, cough, nausea, shortness of breath, and fluid in the lungs.
• Exposure to moderate concentrations can cause fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, staggering, headaches, and irritability.
• Exposure to high concentrations can cause convulsions, amnesia, miscarriage, coma, and death.
Underground suicide sites abound ‘guaranteeing’ that a certain combination will produce an instant death. Yet Exit’s investigations suggest that the science behind such claims is dubious. Deadly: yes. But painless? A lottery. Plus it creates great dangers for rescuers.
The New York Times reported there were 72 chemical suicides in the United States between 2008 and 2011 and that “at least 80 percent have resulted in injuries to police officers, firefighters, emergency workers or civilians exposed to the gas, despite efforts of suicide victims to protect others by putting warning signs on car windows or closet doors.”
Members of right-to-die organizations (such as Exit, or Final Exit Network) mostly investigate these things to gain reassurance for the future, as only a few find they need to take matters into their own hands. This means they investigate thoroughly, and most of them, if they employ rational suicide, will use helium (100% painless).
Our remit is towards those people who are unrelievably and unbearably ill, and for whom all efforts of palliative care have proved not enough. Yet in some ways, does the moral dilemma not have lessons of similarity for both rational and non-rational suicides? No-one should deprive themself of life if they can rationally be persuaded otherwise, whether by the marvels of palliative care or by help to overcome a temporary trauma. But in the end, if someone is going to take their own life, surely humanity should allow it to be as painless as possible.
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Newspaper report: Chemical Suicides
Organized Crime Research Report on Hydrogen Sulfide
Chemical Suicides – Dangers for First Responders
Factors Affecting the Choice of Suicide Method (academic article)
Suicide in Asia (academic article)
Samaritans Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide
W.H.O. Resource for Media Professionals