High Court ruling could mean more support and less stigma for families bereaved by suicide

Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland looks as the sensitivities surrounding a High Court ruling likely to mean more deaths will be classified as suicides. The ruling which happened last week has lowered the standard of proof from criminal to civil for a suicide verdict in England and Wales. This is something that Samaritans and others including the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) and Papyrus have been pushing for. They believe this could give a more accurate picture of who is taking their own life and prevent future deaths.

Last month I received a text asking to cancel a meeting at short notice. The person I was due to meet had just heard that a friend, a young man in his twenties, had taken his own life. There was no doubt that he had planned to kill himself and had taken steps to do so, according to his family.

When it comes to this young man’s inquest though, his death may not be recorded as a suicide but, following this ruling, there is a higher chance that it will. Here’s why I believe that is a good thing.

Suicide used to be a crime, hence the language used in the term ‘to commit suicide’. That changed in the UK in 1961 but the stigma around ending your life has continued and influenced both the way coroners have looked at deaths by suicide and the amount of support and understanding given to families bereaved by suicide. (That’s also a reason that in our Media Guidelines we ask people to avoid the word ‘commit’.)

Until now, before a death can be clearly recorded as suicide, the burden of proof has had to be on a par with that of a crime – it’s almost as if there must be enough evidence to ‘convict’ someone of the act of suicide. Coroners and jurors, where inquests are held in front of a jury, need to be satisfied that a person took their own life ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

In practice, even where a person took steps to end their life, the coroner or a jury can return an alternative verdict, e.g. ‘narrative’ or ‘open’. There’s been a view on many sides, informed not just by the law but also by cultural, religious and social conventions, that a verdict of suicide is something to be avoided.

As Samaritans, we understand these sensitivities, but we also want to highlight the opportunities this ruling brings. Changing the burden of proof so that if, on a balance of probabilities, when a person dies by suicide their cause of death can be named officially as such, should mean clarity, not greater pain for families. It should mean greater empathy and more support in the event of a suspected suicide too, not only at the point of the verdict. This is even more important when we know that if someone close to you takes their own life, you are at more risk yourself. Potentially then, this change could save lives.

One in five adults say they’ve had suicidal thoughts*. Feeling like you want to die can be part of life, and we all need to work harder to make it ok to talk about that. Keeping suicidal feelings to yourself is dangerous. With the lack of understanding of how a person can come to such a hopeless place that they can’t bear to live (which isn’t the same as wanting to die) there’s been a view that it’s somehow ‘kinder’ to record a verdict other than suicide.  This compounds the stigma rather than challenges it.

For those left behind, for whom understandably it may be intolerable to think that a person they love has ‘chosen’ to die, it can mask a truth too. From our work with people in suicidal crisis, we hear many believe they are protecting their loved ones, not hurting or rejecting them.

Suicide is complex, and its circumstances and motivations are rarely clear cut. There will always be cases where it’s impossible to say that a person intended to kill themselves, so other verdicts will rightly remain an option. And, even with the lower burden of proof, barristers representing interested parties will still fight it out to try to prove that a death was or wasn’t suicide, e.g. where there is significant public interest, such as a death in custody or in the care of the NHS.

We don’t want to in any way normalise taking your own life, far from it. But we do want to work with individuals, organisations and agencies across the board to empower people to recognise suicidal feelings in themselves and others, and to direct suicide prevention expertise and resources to those at greatest risk. More accurate data about suicide, which this ruling may go some way to securing, will help with that.

Suicide achieves nothing but utter devastation for those left behind. We believe that every family that loses a loved on to suicide deserves compassion and transparency and the best chance of coming to terms with the reality of what has happened.

The death of the young man that I heard about last month may or may not be called a suicide at his inquest. But I hope it will because if it is formally recognised as such, at least amongst the devastation his death has caused there is a greater chance that those around him will receive the specialist support they need. And we may be one step closer to understanding suicidal behaviour.  Ultimately, that could mean that other young men live as a result.

  • *Source: McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital.

For more information, please contact press@samaritans.org or 020 8394 8396.

Notes to Editors

  • *Source: Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital. McManus, S., Bebbington, P., Jenkins, R., & Brugha, T. (2016).
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