Samaritans and the Society of Authors have collaborated on a set of guidelines for authors to think about when writing about self-harm or suicide, either in fiction or non-fiction.
The advice states that writers should avoid over-simplification and attributing suicidal behaviour to a single, isolated incident; "any suggestion of suicidal behaviour being a natural, understandable or inevitable response to everyday crises"; and "overly dramatising a suicide", as this can "romanticise or glorify the behaviour and inadvertently promote it to people who may be vulnerable". Samaritans cited research which suggests that it is "risky" to indicate any "reward" following a suicide death (for example, a reunion in the afterlife, or bullies being made to feel sorry for their behaviour), too.
"What we understand from the research is that it’s not that suicide shouldn’t be covered in the media, what’s important is how it is covered," explained a spokesperson for Samaritans. "The aim of this guidance 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."
Although Samaritans has issued mainstream media guidance since 1994, for the benefit of news outlets reporting suicide and self-harm, this is the first time guidance has been issued specifically to book authors. Lorna Fraser, executive lead of Samaritans’ Media Advisory Service, said the new guidance had been prompted by concerns raised around "a small number" of publications that had drawn attention to suicide methods. "These kicked off some concerns and discussions around this and the fact there was no guidance [for literature]," she said.
The guidelines have been in the pipeline for a number of years, according to Fraser, who said the involvement of the Society of Authors had been "invaluable".
Nicola Solomon, chief executive for the SoA, said the authors' body had been initially "reluctant" to get involved, but after consulting with its members, including its children’s authors, it decided some "pointers" were welcome. "We try not to tell authors how to write fiction," said Solomon. "But when we spoke further [with Samaritans] we were convinced there were a number of pointers that would be helpful to writers that they might not have heard or thought about, and the points made might not be obvious to people."
Solomon said it had been important to many writers who had provided feedback that all recommendations included were backed up by solid research; and indeed authors were far more receptive to advice when citations and references to specific studies were included. A full bibliography is included with the guidelines.
Nicola Morgan, a former chair of SoA's children's writers' and illustrators' group, who has written about teenage mental health, was brought in as someone from the authors’ side who could evaluate what was being said. She said: "It's great to see lots of references to the research in here. We felt very strongly (having also asked on other children's and teenager writers' groups) that if an author is told 'You shouldn't do this' or 'It isn't advisable to include that' without having the references to the research to support why that makes sense, then the advice wouldn't be particularly favourably received. When I did ask, for those who had or had considered writing about suicide or self-harm, how they would feel about having guidelines, immediately these cautions came back. Some people said, 'Yeah, definitely we would like this', others said 'We would like this but only if...' and then quite a few people said 'No, you can't tell me how to write a novel', so we realised that our worries were confirmed but there needed to be a way of doing it and that it was valid and important to do."
Fraser said there had been "lots" of conversations with Morgan and the SoA around finding a suitable approach and "making useful information available that authors really need to be aware of – but without feeling that we’re reining in anyone’s creativity, or in any way suggesting topics of suicide and self-harm shouldn’t be covered in literature".
As well as ‘the Werther effect’ – which draws a link between certain depictions of suicide in literature and spikes in suicidal behaviour through "social contagion" – Samaritans also talks about another area of research, ‘the Papageno effect’, that shows some coverage of suicide can also be helpful as a preventative measure. "It’s important to raise awareness and increase understanding and seek help," said Fraser.
Advice for publishers in the guidance issued includes being aware of the importance of language when describing suicidal behaviour, "as some terms can perpetuate stigma and discourage people from speaking out and seeking help". It also suggests it can be helpful to signpost readers to appropriate sources of support and to include trigger warnings at the beginning of books and publicity materials containing content related to suicide and self-harm.
"These guidelines are calm, knowledgeable and offer real context," said Solomon. “They are not intended to be a step-by-step guide, but a practical resource to help authors make informed choices about their work. We hope publishers, editors and the wider industry will also learn from and share these guidelines."
Deaths in the UK through suicide rose by 10.9% in 2018 to 6,507, of which deaths among under-25s increased by 23.7% to 730. In the UK, the highest suicide rate is among men aged 45-49, and men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.
Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. The service is free and available at any time.