An Open Letter to the BBC

posted 24 November 2003

The BBC program, "Surfing for Suicide", which aired 16 November 2003, was interesting to listen to. Regrettably, part of what made it interesting was the inaccuracy of some of the statements. The most glaring inaccuracy concerned the use of antifreeze as a method of suicide. While Professor Pritchard has done research on suicide, focusing on the social conditions that appear to encourage or discourage people who would resort to it, it is evident that his knowledge of toxicology is lacking and that the question of whether antifreeze is a suitable poison for suicide is one he should leave to others. In the United States and possibly worldwide, generic "antifreeze" (i.e., what is commonly available) is typically 90-95% ethylene glycol. That chemical, when ingested, is toxic, and if one drinks significantly more than 100ml of it and refuses medical treatment, the kidneys are damaged and the person does indeed die. The only way a person could get chemical burns from this would be if the antifreeze formula included a significant amount of corrosive chemicals. However, given that sources that discuss poisons do not mention chemical burns as a hazard of antifreeze, such would be unlikely to be actually available on the market. Antifreeze that uses propylene glycol instead of ethylene glycol is considered safer because the former chemical is less toxic, but, again, no mention is made that such a product carries the risk of giving the imbiber chemical burns. If, perchance, Professor Pritchard was thinking of antifreeze that uses methanol instead of the two above mentioned chemicals, the risk of chemical burns from drinking it are on par with that of drinking pure ethanol, which is considered to be an irritant but not caustic. Methanol, however, is considerably more toxic than ethanol, and one could conceivably use it as a poison with which to commit suicide. Rather than being at risk of incurring severe chemical burns from drinking it, a person who drank a non-fatal dose would be at risk of being made permanently blind.

Paul Myers has a better understanding of Usenet than the average person, but the statements he makes, taken as a whole, are not quite on the mark. It is true that Usenet groups can be started by a single person, but it is a mystery as to which precise newsgroup he is referring to when he claims to have found the "proposal for the one we've been looking at" when he claims the proposal is being made by someone using hushmail. Which proposal for which newsgroup would that be? Alt.suicide.holiday (ASH) has existed for over thirteen years, alt.suicide.methods (ASM) was created in 1997, but hushmail did not exist on the net until 1998 if that company's DNS record is accurate. Earlier this year there was extensive discussion about a new newsgroup, alt.suicide.holiday.moderated, but since that group has virtually no traffic on it, it cannot be the newsgroup that was being examined and found to be populated by numbers of people who use pseudonyms.

The conjectures as to why anyone would wish to conceal their legal identity and the repeated statement that one can only guess as to the reasons why was interesting; the two possible reasons mentioned were that the person in question was engaged in activities that may be seen as illegal or that they wished to escape persecution by extreme religious groups that disapprove of their activities. What are the other possibilities? Children who explore the internet are told to not reveal their full, legal name or other personal information for their own safety, which is really good advice for a person of any age given the predators that prowl the net in search of the unwary or naive. On a Usenet group where people explore suicidal thoughts and feelings, they run the additional risk of being essentially harassed by people who think that announcing one's intention to suicide is really a plea to have someone report them to the police. In certain parts of the world, admitting one is suicidal to a representative of the State carries the risk of losing one's license to practice certain professions. What is more, wherever a psychologist or other professional is required by law to force a suicidal person to be locked up in a mental ward, the suicidal person who does not wish to be thus incarcerated must choose between lying about how they feel, talking to nobody at all, or talking to people who do not have the power to force such an internment. Anonymity makes it easier to discuss one's feelings when one is concerned that being frank about them would result in his being involuntarily committed. With a little effort, one could probably think of other reasons people prefer to remain anonymous, and someone with a sincere interest in knowing the reasons why could always ask.

ASH has a chronic problem with the presence of predators. ASH also has a chronic problem with the presence of self-appointed suicide interventionists who, as a group, have minimal to no training in this activity and who refuse to see how their behaviour can actually encourage a person to suicide. If the latter group can be excused the damage they do on the grounds that they have good intentions, there are little grounds for condemning someone for providing information on suicide methodology unless one can clearly prove that informing people of such options is an inherently malicious thing to do. The do-gooders are often as pushy as anyone Professor Williams cares to label as predatory.

What is more, the participants of ASH do take action against predators, though ASHers have an opinion as to who is a predator that appears to differ from some of the "experts". An example of the sort of person ASHers consider predatory would be Euthanasia44, and an account of how the attempt was made to stop him can be found in the google archives. It is rather difficult to take the concern of authority figures for the welfare of the participants of ASH seriously when attempts to get the Authorities to help in cases such as this fall on deaf ears.

For that matter, there is something ironic about the case of Mr. Gillies that nobody seems to be willing to discuss. In prosecuting Mr. Gillies over the suicide of Mr. Gooden, the governmental authorities themselves apparently gave Mr. Gillies the incentive he needed to go ahead and kill himself. Will the person who was prosecuting Mr. Gillies be prosecuted in turn? If not, does this mean that it is acceptable to harass and worry suicidal people as long as one does not explicitly tell them how to kill themselves?