Nearly 6,000 people killed themselves in Britain in 2012 alone, official figures revealed today, as the University of Bristol and Samaritans announced the first extensive research project to look into the link between internet use and suicide.
Researchers said the “groundbreaking” study will seek to reveal for the first time the role played by social networks, forums and self-harm websites in the lives of those with suicidal thoughts.
The university said its announcement comes amid growing public concern and media reports surrounding cases, like that of the gifted 15-year-old dancer Tallulah Wilson in 2012, where suicides appear to come after extensive and potentially harmful online activity.
Today, the Office for National Statistics released its most recent figures for suicides in the UK, which show 5,981 people aged 15 and over killed themselves in 2012.
Lucy Biddle, of the University of Bristol's School of Social and Community Medicine, who will lead the two-year project, said the research was “long overdue”.
“The internet poses considerable challenges for suicide prevention,” Dr Biddle said.
“It provides readily accessible information that may increase the risk of suicide and allows an immediate exchange of unregulated user-generated content through social media and chatrooms.”
The research, funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme, aims to find out the risks and benefits of the internet to those with suicidal feelings.
It will also examine how often the internet plays a role in suicidal behaviour by combining academic research with 60 years of experience of Samaritans.
Last month, Sarah Wilson, the mother of Tallulah, from West Hampstead, north-west London, urged parents to be aware of the dangers of the internet.
Speaking following Tallulah's inquest at St Pancras Coroner's Court, Ms Wilson said her daughter was “in the clutches of a toxic digital world” when she was killed by a train.
Ms Wilson, in a statement issued outside the court, she was “shocked by the ease with which Tallulah and other children can access online self-harm and suicide blogs”.
Joe Ferns, executive director of policy, research and development at Samaritans, said: “This is a crucial piece of research. Until now politicians, journalists and campaigners have been debating in a vacuum, with insufficient hard evidence to support or refute their views.
“The findings of this project will be turned into practical actions, helping us understand how to best support our callers in the future. They will also inform the debate both here in the UK and around the world.”
Speaking about the ONS’s statistics on suicide released today, which showed there were 64 fewer cases in 2012 than the year before, the charity Rethink Mental Illness said levels were still “worryingly high”.
Director of communications and campaigns Jane Hughes said: “Too many people aren't getting the support they need when they're feeling suicidal. That's because crisis care is patchy, and in many places doesn't exist at all.
“If ever there was a moment to commit to the new guidelines in crisis care, it's today. We need health services, local government and the police to come together and take real action, so that we can start to reduce the number of needless lost lives.”
Additional reporting by PA
For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or click here for details.