Should suicide discussion forums be banned on net?


Okay, bear with me here.  I just came across this article in the Guardian on line – I didn’t search for it, it was one of those daily headlines you can have pop up in your browser from different papers each day.

Apparently a guy, aged 35, and another woman, got in touch on the internet on a forum that allows people to appeal for ‘suicide partners’, like some sort of macabre dating ad I suppose??

In any case, they met up two weeks later and followed through with their plans.  In this article it’s the father of the man involved who is saying these websites should be banned.  An understandable point of view for someone suffering a recent loss of a loved one, especially as he says his son hadn’t shown signs of depression or other issues.

I’m just a bit shocked, really.  I thought I was reasonably conversant with mental health on the internet, but I haven’t heard of this one before.  Putting aside the ethics of such a website, why would people want a suicide partner?  I mean, I can see why a tiny minority of suicidal people might prefer not to die alone.  I can see why they might think doing it with another person could reduce the chance of something going wrong.  Well, sort of.  But even so, there’s a leap between thinking it’d be nicer to die with someone else, to actually seeking out a website like that and fixing it up with a stranger.  Am I missing something?  This is odd, right?

Moving away from my reaction, though, what about the other issues raised?  Let’s take the legal side first – it’s much less thorny than the ethical debate.  The article states,

Helping others kill themselves is illegal under British law. Following growing concern about misuse of the internet to promote suicide methods, it is now an offence to undertake an act “capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person with the intention to so encourage or assist”.

The person committing the offence does not need to know the other person.

So, the law is pretty clear, then.  I’m going to assume the offence only relates to actually aiding a person physically.  I mean they would have to meet up with the person (as these two did), procure something for the person and/or be present at the attempt, to break the law.  If I’m wrong let me know, but from that paragraph quoted, I can’t see how merely posting on such a website would fall under the category of an “act”.

Apparently a website is only forced to remove illegal material, under European law, when it has been notified of the illegality of the content.  But that’s another issue.

My first inclination, when I thought about whether a suicide discussion forum should be banned, was OF COURSE NOT.  We have no right to stop people talking about whatever subject they wish.  It would be as silly as commanding patients in a psychiatric ward never to discuss suicide (whether inside or when they leave the ward) and prohibiting them from making suicide pacts with one another.  I mean, just the idea of bringing that up as a not-to-do seems absurdly self-defeating.

My gut feeling is that people will get information, if they really want it.  If they go to the trouble of creating an on-line identity, finding a site which caters to their desires, then are you really telling me that they couldn’t have done that anyway?  In terms of discussion of ‘what works best’ for suicide methods, if we didn’t have the internet, we’d still have libraries.  A brief look in the medical/psychiatric section of the library would probably furnish a determined person with the information they require.

I’m ready to be told I’m wrong, if I am.  If there are statistics showing that the internet has considerably increased successful suicides then I can understand why a call to ban them might be suggested.  I don’t think the internet can be censored this way though, even if we want to.  As long as responsible mental health sites exist in greater quantity than these odd offshoots then I would think splashing an article about them in a national newspaper would make the situation worse.  Just my thoughts there…


4 thoughts on “Should suicide discussion forums be banned on net?

  1. I am pretty sure I know which site it was they used, and it isn’t that uncommon for people to look for suicide partners on there. Can’t say it is something I would do, but I suppose people don’t want to feel alone.

    Ultimately I don’t think you can really ban anything on the internet – it will all pop up again somewhere. The internet is just too big a thing to censor, and people can always find places to talk about these things.

    I don’t know how I feel about it really. It is sad they felt they had no options left except suicide, but all of us who have attempted suicide have felt like that I suppose. Personally I am uncomfortable with the idea of a suicide pact, as I think it could put pressure on someone and mean they end up going through with it when they may otherwise have chosen not to. I think we do have the right to kill ourselves if that is what we ultimately decide, but it needs to be your own decision, and I can imagine some people thinking they want to die, but then feeling less sure about it, but the encouragement of the other person could mean they kill themselves despite their doubts. It is kind of a weird one though.

    • Hi Bippidee,

      agreed re internet too big to censor at present. I take your point regarding the potential pressure of a ‘pact’, I can see your logic. A bit like mass cult suicides, perhaps??

  2. I am not a lawyer, but the legal side (the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) seems very thorny to me. Posting on a web site is certainly an “act” in law. The act of posting does not have to encourage any actual suicide attempt, it only has to be “capable of encouraging” one, and “intended to encourage” one.

    If this is extended to impose bans on discussion, the problem is that “capable of encouraging” is too loose. For example, your remark about it being “nicer to die with someone else” could be held as capable of encouraging suicide. So this site could be banned while lawyers argue about your intention.

    Alas, turning Joanne Lee’s story into a “let’s ban the Internet” campaign distracts from the failure of the NHS to provide effective treatment for her long-term mental illness, which her mother spoke of to reporters but the Guardian seems to have forgotten to mention.

    • Hi cbtish,

      that’s interesting about the the woman, and sad if the NHS wasn’t able to provide effective treatment.

      Indeed ‘intention’ is almost laughably difficult to prove and how one could satisfy that criterion in the context of an internet forum discussion is beyond my comprehension.

      Food for thought though…

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