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Friday 11 April 2008

Why suicide prevention charities are idiots

Another rubbish piece of web reporting from the BBC (and now all over) - only because it has a medical/doctor aura it's accepted as gospel.
People searching the web for information on suicide are more likely to find sites encouraging the act than offering support, a study says.

Researchers used four search engines to look for suicide-related sites, the British Medical Journal [BMJ] said.

The three most frequently occurring sites were all pro-suicide, prompting researchers to call for anti-suicide web pages to be prioritised.
'Frequently occurring ' means bugger all. The vast, vast majority of searchers don't get past the first ten results and most of those don't get past the top three

I cannot know what exactly their methods were because this information isn't in the public domain - it's behind a payment firewall. (NB: Postscript below - terms and full research is now available)

So unless they send me the research, I (or joe/jill public) has no way of countering this biased reporting and what appears to be shoddy research except what's in this article and what we can guess happened.
The researchers, from Bristol, Oxford and Manchester universities, typed in 12 simple suicide-related search terms into the internet engines.

They analysed the first 10 sites in each search, giving a total of 480 hits.

Altogether 240 different sites were found. A fifth were dedicated suicides sites, while a further tenth were sites that gave factual or jokey information about suicide.

Meanwhile, 13% of sites were focused on suicide prevention while another 12% actively discouraged it.
Well I just did a Google search - 70% of UK web searches, mostly to rather than - on 'suicide' (NB: with 'safesearch' off) and Wikipedia was #1, as usual. Yes, this includes a link to a 'suicide methods' page - it's an encyclopedia. It also has a page about torture and one on necrophilia. What do they propose to do about that? Have Wikipedia be filtered through a charity? Or the government?
  • the next result directs people to the Samaritans
  • next is, run by an author called Melody Clark - doesn't appear to be 'encouraging it' from what I saw
  • then news sites links
  • then Mind's website
  • then Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • then a page from
  • then a page from SOON Ministries (anti)
  • then a Times article
  • then netdoctor
Alongside this were a number of text ads from suicide prevention charities, including Samaritans but mainly small or religious ones, and one business ('Cremated ashes made into glass: "Keep the memory"'). I scanned Yahoo and MSN - almost exactly the same.

On, Mind is #1, some smaller charities appear as well as the BBC but otherwise it's similar to The Samaritans are way, way down - they need the text ad - and Sane not in the first 100 results.

The article isn't telling me what the other terms used were. But I can run a keyword suggestion tool. That gives me (for UK market) the number of daily searches for the particular keyword :

suicide 7788
suicide girls 4921 - a band
suicide girl 438 - fans of that band
teen suicide 429
how to commit suicide 408
suicide methods 375
assisted suicide 349
suicide poems 237
teenage suicide 205
physician assisted suicide 190

As you can see, searches on the simple term 'suicide' are far more prevalent and this list is almost identical to the USA's. As I don't have the details on these 'twelve terms' they researched I don't know what the prevalence/total number of searches on them actually are, let alone if that can be broken down by age group by any method. But I can guess that metric didn't feature in the research.

'How to commit suicide'

Again, Wikipedia, news and religious sites make up the top ten for 'how to commit suicide' on Only at #9 do I get a website about suicide methods. And this is a very long tract by anarchists. Further down there's the Hemlock Society and some others

These top tens change. Particularly because 'freshness' is more of a consideration than it used to be - hence news results. These researchers don't mention video, but that is now prominent in Google results (the ones in results are all jokey).

Notably, no UK charity like the Samaritans and with the exception of Mind shows up until way down the list on that search term on or

On both and the Samaritans and some smaller charities and businesses advertise and appears also in top ten search results on though these are dominated by news.
Lead researcher Lucy Biddle said that because of the law, self-regulation by internet providers and the use of filtering software by parents were the main methods used to try and prevent use of pro-suicide sites.

But she added: "This research shows it is very easy to obtain detailed technical information about methods of suicide."
Yes, if you are determined to find it you will find it. Doh! Just like bomb making recipies and rants against the Chinese government if you are Chinese in China. Filtering software is notoriously about sales and fear and only really 'works' with white lists or massive over-blocking/policing ('Great Firewall').

Her research did not demonstrate that finding pro-suicide websites is "very easy". Contrary to assumptions, I haven't seen evidence that shows that kids and teens are that much better, if at all, at finding things online using search engines than anyone else.

What I can say is that searches for 'suicide' are going down. This is a Google Trends search using the terms 'suicide -attack -Iraq -Afghanistan' to roughly exclude suicide bombers (I checked common keywords in news reports).

This does not include the press coverage of the Bridgend, Wales suicide cluster from earlier this year tied to peaks, because that volume is too low to display in that graph, but would likely be responsible for the early 2008 peak. See 'Bridgend' vs 'suicide' below.

For general searches for 'suicide', the general trend appears to be clearly down. Some good news you won't read in reporting.

Apart from no numbers on what the actual usage is of 'pro-suicide' sites, another point is whether the websites which charities and government create are actually helping kids and teens. I don't know but I'd like to - there's obviously nothing about that in this research, why some kids and teens might be turning to these sites they want to ban in the first place instead of 'official' ones.
She said internet service providers could pursue strategies that would maximise the likelihood that sites aimed at preventing suicide are sourced first.

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, agreed something should be done.
  • how about running your ads next to more search terms than just 'suicide'. (Only Sane isn't doing any in the first place.)
  • Or employing some Search Engine Optimisation specialists to make sure that your pages come up first. They might even do it for nothing or just the publicity.
  • Or working with other charities to make sure you cover every possible term and intervene via content and ads on other sites or through social networks (simply creating a page on Mind's website, already high-up results, which is titled 'How to commit suicide' would immediately help).
  • Or fixing your own website where the first result on a search for 'suicide' is 'The National Suicide Prevention Strategy report'.
Here's the beef - I would class the actions of such charities in making NO effort to ensure that their pages turn up tops on such search terms as 'How to commit suicide' as IRRESPONSIBLE. There are no excuses and to behave as if this is someone else's responsibility - let alone ISPs - is childish and pathetic PLUS it lets down kids and teens. Yes, this makes me very angry!
"We remain deeply concerned about the possible influence of the internet on suicide rates, not least the ease with which information about particular methods can be found with a simple web search."

"These sites are preying on vulnerable and lonely people."
And you, Marjorie Wallace, are not doing your job properly, you are failing the very kids and teens you claim to be helping and you are simply looking for someone else to blame.

As for the BMJ and these so-called researchers ... and as for the BBC. Who the heck do they think this actually helps? This is badly researched scare mongering.

This is exactly what happens when you set up walled gardens and fail to relate to the wider web - I am not seeing the NHS or government portal directgov anywhere in these results and that 'can't be bothered' mentality dominates the charity sector as well.

Hardly surprising when the 'National suicide prevention strategy for England' contains no mention of either the web, the internet or even chatrooms.

The same goes for health information for teens and kids on a wider scale than just suicide prevention - we're looking at an abdication of responsibility online and a willingness to blame others.

What Sane and other charities should do:
  1. Talk to the search engines, they are very interested in getting results right and can and do 'tweak' them. They won't 'censor' sites or stop indexing the whole web but they will help and advise on improving positioning.
  2. Don't talk to the ISPs! Talk to the search engine experts such as the Search Marketing Association.
  3. Talk to social networks about teaming up with them and others to create widgets and other tools so kids and teens can help others.
As well, these people would probably do it for free or cheaply. It would be very straightforward to out-manoeuvre the sites you hate online. What resources do they have vs. what resources do you have?

But for kids sake stop behaving with fear and horror about the web and start using it rather than expecting someone else to do your job.

I am afraid that none of these people are listening, though, (the news media is already known to be a bigger encourager of suicide than the web). What they are developing is an righteous effort, like has happened in Australia, which will result in a censored Internet for all of us - and no real help for those they claim to be helping.


Postscript: I have submitted a response to the BMJ, pointing them to this blog post. I have also written to Marjorie Wallace of Sane pointing her to this blog post and making plain that I would freely offer my help and contact others willing to help them improve their search positioning and online help for the suicidal.

Postscript: An anonymous commentator says that the 12 search terms were:
a) suicide; (b) suicide methods; (c) suicide sure methods; (d) most effective methods of suicide; (e) methods of suicide; (f) ways to commit suicide; (g) how to commit suicide; (h) how to kill yourself; (i) easy suicide methods; (j) best suicide methods; (k) pain-free suicide, and (l) quick suicide.
And those showed:
Top 4 sites were Alt Suicide Holiday, Satan Service, Suicide and wikipedia. In that order first 3 were catigorised as pro suicide wikipedia as Information site: factual.
But as you can see from the keyword search numbers above only 'how to commit suicide' and 'suicide methods ' are frequently used search terms and both are dwafted by searches on 'suicide'.

The daily search numbers for 'how to kill yourself', 216. But for 'suicide poems', not a term they used, 237. 'Suicide sure methods' (Used), 0. 'Most effective methods for committing suicide', 0. 'Methods of suicide' is exactly the same term as 'suicide methods'. 'Ways to commit suicide' 158. 'Easy suicide methods', 11. 'Pain-free suicide', 0 (But 'painless suicide methods', not used, 53). ' Quick suicide', 4.

'Suicide', 7788.

If these are indeed the variants, by what method were those twelve search terms picked? It doesn't appear very scientific, unless I'm missing some additional information.

And none of this lets charities (or government) off the hook because churches and others are already in there topping results by generating links and picking page titles which put them at the top for terms which are searched on.

Postscript: The full text of the article has now been made available on the BMJ website.

This says:
Search strategy
We sought to replicate the results of a typical search that might be undertaken by a person seeking information about methods of suicide. We conducted searches using the four most popular UK search engines and 12 broad search terms—a total of 48 searches. The terms entered were those likely to be used by distressed individuals, determined partly from interview data collected in an ongoing qualitative study of near-fatal suicide attempts and by using search suggestions provided by the engines upon entering terms such as "suicide."
There isn't any further detail on just how they could know what search terms were actually entered 'by distressed individuals' as opposed to ones without distress or how relevant 'interview data' would be in working that out. My look at keywords suggests that they picked the wrong ones anyway and to include both 'methods of suicide' and 'suicide methods' is just inept.

I repeat that the conclusions of the study don't match any real data on what 'distressed individuals' might search on, let alone which terms are most frequently used (a metric which was clearly irrelevant in this study), let alone what we know about search patterns - the sort of information which has been researched to death because it has commercial value, let alone which search engine they probably used. The tenth in a top ten of search results is far less likely to be clicked on than the first, just to pick one example, yet their 'results' are predicated on them having the same value. There is clearly very little understanding of search behaviour by these researchers and this renders all the rest of the study entirely meaningless.

If they had even bothered to ask some of the search marketing/search optimisation specialists probably around the corner from them, or possibly even within the same universities, they would have realised that their methodology doesn't show anything. But as a result of this article being in the hallowed BMJ we now have headlines around the world.

I would suggest that this article devalues the BMJ itself as a source of scientific information unless it is withdrawn. There was nothing scientific about this study.

This is not to say that analysis of how search may contribute to actual suicide isn't valuable, but it needs to be done by specialists who can use the tools established by the industry to track and analyse which sites are the most dangerous and where the traffic to them is coming from - it may well not be primarily search. That could be done. As well, as I have explained at length, the best course is a concerted effort by charities and government to direct 'distressed individuals' to websites which can really help them.

Postscript: I actually got Google search share wrong. It's not 70%, it's 86%. And most of those are to rather than - which has changed dramatically from the last time I looked at this, presumably because Google is getting better at presenting more relevant results and presenting because it knows that's where you're searching from.

Postscript: In a comment, Graham Jones who runs the Internet Psychology web site, says that he met some people who were connected to the research and "they were suitably embarrassed in private when I pointed out the simple flaws in the research". Another critic of the research is John M. Grohol, Psy.D. at the PsychCentral website.


  1. search terms used were:

    a) suicide; (b) suicide methods; (c) suicide sure methods; (d) most effective methods of suicide; (e) methods of suicide; (f) ways to commit suicide; (g) how to commit suicide; (h) how to kill yourself; (i) easy suicide methods; (j) best suicide methods; (k) pain-free suicide, and (l) quick suicide

    Top 4 sites were Alt Suicide Holiday, Satan Service, Suicide and wikipedia. In that order first 3 were catigorised as pro suicide wikipedia as Information site: factual

  2. I have addressed the information in the previous comment in a postscript within the blog post.

  3. Paul, this is a highly thorough analysis - even without sight of the original research; well done. By coincidence, after I blogged about this on my Internet Psychology web site I met some people who were connected to the research. (I won't say how, for fear of embarrassing them in public...!) However, suffice it to say they were suitably embarrassed in private when I pointed out the simple flaws in the research.

  4. Cheers Graham. Be interesting to see what the BMJ does, particularly given your illuminating comment.

  5. Excellent post! And thank you for commenting on my own post on this topic.

  6. Thankyou for scrutinising this research.
    The selection of suitable query terms is an important factor in returning relevant information.
    The selection of terms in this study did not include 'prevention', 'help', 'assistance', 'counselling' and were designed to return the sites they retrieved.
    Search engines ("web dragons") need skillful handling.

  7. Thank you for writing this article. I agree with you and believe that suicide should be a private matter and if someone wants to kill themselves they should be allowed to. Why do we force people to suffer in ways we would never allow a dog or cat suffer in. In any case they will, no matter what laws are out there and no matter how much society frowns on it. The difference is that without resources they may die painfully or fail and end up a vegetable.
    I have a progressive neurological disorder. I live everyday in varying degrees of pain and have lost much of my abilities, despite taking time released pain med (because god forbid I should become addicted to my meds) because the amounts are not adequate.
    Perhaps if people were able to get good pain control and the support they need they might not be looking at suicide. But many of us have little choice. I know that when my disease progresses to the point I can't take care of myself (and actually because of the laws that make it a crime to "assist" suicide, I'll have to do this before I reach that point) I am not sticking around. I refuse to end up in a nursing home where I have NO CONTROL over my own life and I will not be more of a burden to my husband then I already am. Again because of the stupid laws by these so called compassionate Christians I will be forced to die alone without my loved one who will have to establish an airtight alibi so they don't go to jail This just isn't right. I'm a disabled veteran and an adult. I should be able to end my life WHEN and HOW I want. The worst part is that you can't even talk with a mental health professional because they'll put you in the loony bin "to save you" because the only reason people kill themselves is because of depression (what a load of horse pucky). Maybe if it was safe to talk with someone people might go for help but since we know they will try and talk us out of it or will commit us we don't have that option. It would be nice to be able to talk with someone who has no stake in what is going to happen. Just to make sure you're thinking ok. But I'm rambling. Laws need to be changed so adults can make the decisions they need to make and can die at home comfortably surrounded by their loved ones. Think of how less scary death would be if children could see this natural end to life. And even adults might not have such a fear. I stayed with my father in law when he died at the hospital last year. It was peaceful and the way I'd like to go. He had his family around him, enough medications to make him comfortable and he seemed so happy to end the pain he had been in. I'd like to see laws created that would keep our rights intact and keep the government out of personal matters.

  8. Thanks Charlotte - your comment helps put this work in context.

    I have experience through living through too many AIDS deaths. So you know I hope that I understand. You have every right to decide what to do with your life.

  9. I'm coming late to the debate, apologies. I'm searching for sites that give accurate, factual information on how to end one's life.

    You mention the mental health charities and their lack of high profil out here on the net.

    And well you might...the Samaritans has a strictly non-interventionist policy. That is, explicitly, they do not intervene nor will they talk a would-be suicide out of their thoughts or their actions. They do however offer to stay on the line until the caller bleeds to death, hangs, or passes out and dies from asphyxiation etc.

    PLEASE check this with the Samaritans. You will find that this is authentic information.

    Equally, MIND and Saneline have the same approach. They will not intervene. MIND is particularly uninterested, whilst Saneline can be aggressively off-putting to those who are in a precarious state.

    These policies really do need to be made public. These organisations are clearly sailing under false flags . But it perhaps does explain why they are not high profile on the net: simply, their interest is not in saving lives.

    Which begs the question: what precisely do they exist for then? May I suggest lip service? (As the NHS and all gvt 'initiatives').

  10. That's quite a read. I'm happy that Australians are promoting help services. I'm willing to support services that help saves lives.
    Suicide Prevention in Your Life