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Raising awareness of suicide shouldn’t mean sacrificing sensitivity

ITV’s new installation of mannequins, positioned as though about to jump off the top of their studios, needs to be met with serious consideration of what it means to raise awareness of an issue. This includes thinking about who, amongst a potential audience, should be prioritised when it comes to their personal response.

The television network says the statues are intended to raise awareness about high male suicide rates. There are 84 figures, to represent the 84 men who take their own lives each week in Britain. The installation is part of a campaign called Project 84, and is being run in collaboration with mental health charity CALM. The campaign aims to provoke the government into improving suicide prevention support for men and to engage with the public on the issue. The chief executive of CALM said, ‘We wanted to make the scale of the situation very clear to everyone that sees the sculptures.’

These are important aims, but crucially the project neglects to consider the impact this installation will have on people actually at risk of suicide.

More than fifty studies worldwide have found that the risk of additional suicides increases when news stories explicitly describe or include photos of methods of suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The Netflix show ‘13 Reasons Why’ received widespread criticism for showing how the protagonist killed herself for this very reason. And yet ITV’s installation has been met with praise, despite depicting a method of suicide in a public space where people cannot choose what they see – unlike with television. After all, it is “raising awareness”.

But what are the statues actually raising awareness of? Suicide and its particular prevalence amongst men is not a problem people are unaware of, even if many may not know the exact 84-a-week statistic. What is really needed is awareness about what leads to suicide and its inflated risk among men, what friends and families can do, and, most importantly, what help is available. The frightening and hopeless spectacle of what seems like men about to jump achieves none of this.

As someone who has post-traumatic stress disorder after supporting a suicidal friend for a long period, for me what started as a pleasant walk along the Southbank ended in humiliating public flashbacks and trying to find an alternative route on my return journey. I can only imagine the impact the installation could have on those currently struggling with suicidal ideation. At the very least, it makes the Southbank less accessible for mentally ill people – and at worse, as the AFSP makes very clear, even exacerbate the problem they are trying to prevent.

Although clearly done with a very different intent, I had hoped we would have learnt from the stupidity of YouTuber Logan Paul – who filmed the corpse of a suicide victim – that raising awareness is not a good enough excuse for making a spectacle of an individual’s pain, particularly if it is likely to be to the detriment of others who are also at risk from suicide.

Suicide, and its high rates among men, is a serious and pressing issue, and the campaign is right to aim to raise public awareness and spur the government to action. Mental health services are particularly underfunded within our squeezed NHS, and this must be addressed. However, when attempting to campaign for the issue, we must not prioritise long term goals over the immediate wellbeing of those they claim to support.

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