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Suicide organisations warn of exaggerated or false information being shared online

There have been multiple posts on social media making claims about the number of suicides in an area of Galway recently.

Image: Shutterstock/Jirapong Manustrong

EARLIER THIS WEEK, a spokesperson for the charity Samaritans told TheJournal.ie that “one death [by suicide] is too many”. 

“There is a family behind each one,” the spokesperson added. 

In recent weeks, there have been a number of posts being shared widely on social media making claims about the number of people dying by suicide in the vicinity of the River Corrib in Galway. 

Several posts claim that nine people have been found dead in the last number of weeks, with some posts claiming that all the deaths happened over the space of one weekend.  Another post said that there have been 14 people found dead over a similar time period. 

Some of these posts – many of which were shared around 25 February – link these apparent suicides to the current level of restrictions in Ireland due to Covid-19.

One poster said that people were suffering due to these lockdowns, when there was no need for them to. 

At a time when legitimate fears around mental health and actual cases of personal tragedies are a concern for many, there have been examples of exaggerated or false information being shared online alongside that. 

While the real-life cases of such tragic circumstances cannot and should not be diminished, exaggerated claims of the number of people dying by suicide and linking them to particular events can have an extremely negative ripple effect, according to organisations working in this area.

Such posts claiming a rise in the number of suicides during the pandemic cannot be proven, based on the way suicides are counted in Ireland. 

It’s understood that there have been several instances in recent times of bodies recovered from the Corrib River – two organisations which work in the area said that there have been four deaths – but it is not close to the numbers of nine or 14 that are being alleged online. 

A garda spokesperson said that it had recorded one instance of a personal tragedy in the vicinity of the River Corrib between 14 February and 4 March. Due to the way that suicides are recorded in Ireland, as it needs to be certified by a coroner, there may be a lag in the garda figure here.  

When these posts on social media are shared widely, they are seen by a lot of people. Many of them will reference how these deaths “won’t be reported by the media”. 

In one instance of a post that features a screengrab of the claim that nine bodies had been found, one commenter responds to say that the claim was untrue and that there was “no point in over-exaggerating very sad stories to make a point”.

The user who shared the screengrab replied: “It may be untrue. I’m sharing a post and interested in comments.” 

It’s understood that there is an impression across the local area that there has been a spike in suicides. 

Charities and organisations who work in this area have said the spread of such claims can have a direct harm on some of the people who read them.

A spokesperson for Headline, a national media programme around responsible reporting in this area, told TheJournal.ie that an increase in commentary around suicide brings clear dangers with it.

She said: “This kind of commentary around suicide and the pandemic/lockdown can create a sense of panic, make people feel hopeless, and for those who are currently at risk of engaging in self-harm or suicidal behaviour, it can potentially normalise suicide as a response to our current challenging situation.  

Specifically linking an individual case of suicide to Covid or to the lockdown can also lead at-risk people to identify with that person’s situation and to feel that suicide is a reasonable response to how they’re currently feeling. Even though it may feel to us that the pandemic and its stresses are never going to end, it’s important for people to remember that they will and that suicide is a ‘permanent solution to a temporary problem’. 

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The Samaritans spokesperson also stressed that it is important for people to be mindful about what they share on social media.

The spokesperson said: “Now more than ever, it is essential that we look after our own mental health and that of others, by continuing to check in on one another and sharing how we are feeling, whether it’s with a friend, family member or a confidential helpline like Samaritans.

“Our volunteers have been hearing from people feeling concerned about isolation, unemployment, mental health and illness amongst other issues.

“It is important for everyone to be aware that some people, including young people, can be particularly vulnerable in relation to coverage of suicide and self-harm in the media and on social media. Young people are more likely to be influenced by what they see and read more than other age groups.”

The Headline spokesperson said that raising awareness of mental health issues and highlighting the shortcomings in the mental health system are important tasks, including by the media, but it should not be done in a way that fuels panic.

“It’s also important to note that the way we are feeling is a normal response to a very unusual and challenging situation,” the spokesperson said.

“People’s mental health is suffering, but for a large proportion of those people, it’s likely that they will come out the other side and be able to re-establish a healthy outlook with relative ease.

For some people of course, including those with existing mental health issues, recovery will be more challenging. However, the number of people struggling with their mental health now is not necessarily indicative of the number of people who will require professional support once the pandemic is brought under control and we get back to something approaching ‘normal’.

“For most people, this will pass. For those who find it more difficult, it’s important to signpost to helplines and other appropriate resources.”

Need help? Support is available:

  • Aware – 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House – 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland – 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline – 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

With reporting from Lauren Boland

About the author:

Sean Murray

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