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Why young people feel safer talking about suicide online than in real life

Teenage boy in grey hoodie looking at phone in the dark
Being dismissed in real life is a key reason that people turn to online spaces for support. Motortion Films/Shutterstock

After Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, much-needed conversations about mental health and specifically suicide opened up in society. Viewers heard Meghan talk candidly about a very difficult time in her life, describing how gradually, a claustrophobic sense of being trapped with no way out had left her feeling like she didn’t want to be alive anymore.

Although Meghan’s openness was praised by many mental health charities and experts across the world, her account was questioned and even mocked in some news outlets.

Seeking support

Our research at the University of Birmingham shows that invalidating people’s experiences of suicidality (another term for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts) is common. It’s also deeply distressing for those on the receiving end. In the study, which explores how 17-23-year-olds who are at risk of suicide seek help, participants shared how health professionals would often dismiss their experiences of self-harm and suicidality. As this research participant told us:

They asked me “are you getting suicidal thoughts? Are you suicidal?” and when I said “yes”. Especially this one doctor, I won’t name names, but he was like “you wouldn’t do it anyway”.

Such dismissive attitudes often leave people feeling hopeless and helpless, as this participant revealed:

The GP said, when I went into my low mood, he was like “you have got a really nice supportive family so you are going to be okay”. I was just thinking “you don’t know anything”. He not only made that assumption, but he introduced that concept in the room. I had nowhere to go.

Teenage girl in flannel shirt looking at person in purple top opposite her
People don’t share these experiences because they don’t think they’ll be taken seriously by friends, family and even professionals. SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

One of the main reasons people gave for not sharing these experiences was that they didn’t believe they’d be taken seriously – by friends, by family and even by professionals. Many feared being shunned, misunderstood or ridiculed if they sought help or spoke out. As another participant revealed:

If you try and seek help and you get like a “you are doing this on purpose for a different reason, or for attention”, it makes a mockery of what you were feeling.

Young people in our study described how they wished professionals would address suicidality, with many detailing their experiences of asking for help from health professionals only to be turned away or dismissed.

If you are sat there explaining you are struggling and you need help, then they should listen and not be like “you are just having a bad week” kind of thing.

Safe spaces online

Another study, also at the University of Birmingham, has explored self-harm and suicide related discussions across social media. It shows that invalidating people’s experiences of suicidality in real life is a key reason that young people turn to online spaces for support and understanding.

Three young people sitting on a sofa using phones with social media notification graphics over their heads
The fact that young people feel so much safer online says a lot about how society handles mental health.

Against the background of having been dismissed as “attention seeking” in hospital, for example, or ostracised by friends, participants recounted feeling “safe”, “heard” and “accepted” in online spaces that might appear from the outside to be anything but that. The internet and social media may be typically associated with confrontation and other unpleasant experiences, but they can provide incredibly supportive environments for some people.

Though it’s not without risk, social media offers spaces in which people’s stories of self-harm and suicide, and their complex social causes, can be listened to openly and without judgement. One participant said:

Having someone else acknowledge what you’re going through and to say that they care about you and to show that they see you, it helps a lot to feel like you’re…like you matter.

That a person at their most vulnerable may feel the need to turn to strangers online, however, is a damning indictment of how we, as a society, treat those experiencing suicidality. Dismissive or negative attitudes are often the reason some people are worried about disclosing the true extent of their suicidality and feel shameful about seeking help from loved ones. Our study shows that some young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with those who aren’t close to them. And although social media could also foster unhealthy attitudes towards suicide, for some it offers a vital space to speak openly.

Suicide can affect anyone regardless of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. While for many, suicide may be unthinkable and at the far edges of everyday experience, for others feeling suicidal is a lived daily reality; one that we need to acknowledge, listen to and take responsibility for.

There’s an urgent need to create safe spaces in society (and in mental health services) in which people can share their experiences without being dismissed, disbelieved or rejected. Although online spaces may be at times concerning, the lack of judgement that they offer to people who describe feeling suicidal needs to be mirrored in the offline world. Invalidating these experiences only serves to perpetuate our culture of secrecy and stigma.

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