Content note: This article discusses self-harm and suicide, including methods and deaths. We encourage all readers to go gently.
All deaths by suicide are painful and tragic; even more so when the person who has died is a young or so-called vulnerable person. This article explores the pain of seeing our deaths transformed into cheap suicide prevention policy wins by a government which shows little interest in the material conditions of our lives. In particular, I think about the process of fighting against a new self-harm offence in the Online Safety Act and then later, the proposed Criminal Justice Bill.
The Online Safety Act is a piece of legislation designed to make the internet a safer place for all (and particularly young people): limiting the flow of “harmful” content online by more harshly regulating social media platforms and making some forms of content illegal to create. Included in the legislation is a new offence of “encouraging or assisting self-harm”. Coercing or pressuring someone to hurt themselves is always wrong, but the offence goes far further than this. In failing to adequately define or limit the offence, the act risks criminalising online peer support, harm reduction resources, or simply a person sharing their own experiences. Far from keeping us safe, the bill could work to criminalise the very people it sets out to “protect”.
We raised these concerns about the new offence during the development of the bill, first as Make Space and later through a coalition with NSUN, Self-Injury Support, and more than a hundred others also worried about its impact. While we gained traction among legislators in the House of Lords, we got to the table too late: the offence was already a policy-goal and became law, with no additional safeguards.
The government promised us consultation; that when the bill was finished it would be accompanied by prosecutorial guidance that responded to our concerns. Neither of these things have happened. Instead, the bill was accompanied by press releases referring to those making self-harm content as “abhorrent trolls” responsible for the deaths of vulnerable people, and then extended the offence to offline contexts and specifically to harm reduction efforts in the proposed Criminal Justice Bill.
The specificity of self-harm: why the offence is misguided
In the development of these new offences, self-harm and suicide have become confused in misguided and damaging ways. For one, the language of “encouraging or assisting” is taken directly from the Suicide Act 1961, in which is it illegal to help or otherwise facilitate another person’s death by suicide. The new offence in the Online Safety Act is inspired specifically by the suicides of multiple young people, who were found to have sought and later been pushed by algorithms towards hundreds if not thousands of pieces of self-harm and suicide-related content. It is not clear exactly what this content was, but it does not seem that it was malicious, as much as it represented a network of people discussing, sharing, or showing their own self-harm.
This new offence was taken up in the name of preventing deaths by suicide, scapegoating other vulnerable people as the potential cause of (or at least contributor to) deaths by suicide. Unexplored were the myriad other reasons a person may choose to die by suicide. Contributors to deaths involving self-harm may include the well-documented and worsening state of mental health and self-harm specific “support”, including impossibly long waiting lists, self-harm being the reason for discharge from mental health services, punitive and shaming responses to self-harm in healthcare, or police involvement in mental health crises. The list continues. It is no wonder that people turn to the internet, and to each other, for care. It is these people, who may share methods, positive experiences of self-harm, or harm reduction resources, that these new offences open up to criminal charges.
Similarly, the extension to the offence in the Criminal Justice Bill originates in the government’s new Suicide Prevention Strategy, in which new legislation to curb “encouraging or assisting” self-harm is set out as a clear and simple policy goal. There is no separate self-harm specific policy or plan in the UK; it is always and only ever discussed as an adjunct to suicide. Once again, the seemingly benevolent aim of keeping people alive puts the very people it seeks to “support” at risk. On the almost entire lack of care for self-harm, caused by misguided attitudes within and chronic underfunding of mental health care, the government remains silent.
But self-harm is not suicide. While this may seem obvious, the two are almost always spoken about in the same breath, positioned as a continuum of harm in which self-injury is always linked to and potentially leading to death. Those of us who live with self-harm know that this is not true. Self-harm can be many things, sometimes and often an act of self-care, with the aim of preserving rather than ending one’s life. Because of its multiple meanings and multiple functions, responding well to self-harm requires nuance, care, and attending to someone’s needs even if they feel confusing or painful. This nuance, and the lack of it, is the reason we started Make Space.
Responding well to self-harm means creating the space to talk about it for what it is, allowing those who experience self-harm to show and share their experiences; including the pain, ambivalence, and shame as well as the tender, positive, and sometimes even the funny. “Preventing” suicide is not the same as “preventing” self-harm: when we talk about “preventing” self-harm we are not talking about stopping a single act —- we are putting people at risk by shaming or encouraging them to cease a set of practices that, irrespective of their outcome, have become a way of taking care of ourselves.
Legislating about us, without us
In creating these new offences, particularly in the Online Safety Act, the government spoke a lot about keeping us safe. It was developed about and for us. Those pushing for the offence cited much research with people (particularly young people) reflecting on their experiences of accessing self-harm content online (which were often, actually, ambivalent in their conclusions). But when over 130 of us with experience of self-harm raised our concerns about the offence, the government was unwilling to listen. Trying to resist the new offence and call for greater safeguards involved hundreds of hours of emailing, calling, and writing letters to legislators and government ministers. This was only possible because of the privilege we held as university-educated people, with a degree of legal literacy, stable income (meaning we could do this work largely for free), and contacts across the mental health and campaigning sectors. without these advantages, I doubt we would have got as far as we did.
While some legislators responded with care, the majority never replied. When one legislator discussed our open letter in debates on the bill, the government promised that they would talk to us before the legislation was passed. This did not happen. Looking through the available documents on the offence, it appears that not a single self-harm specific organisation was consulted on the legislation. For all the reasons I outlined above, when it comes to self-harm, specificity matters.
The story is similar for the Criminal Justice Bill, which appears to be a piece of legislation designed to mop up the Conservative government’s failing policies ahead of a general election. Alongside an extension to the “encouraging or assisting” self-harm offence, the bill represents an extension to police power over so-called “vulnerable people”, including proposals to lowering the age someone can be issued a Community Protection Notice to 10 years old, allowing for UK prisoners to be transported and detained abroad, and creating two new offences of “nuisance” begging and sleeping. While the Criminal Justice Bill is not yet law (and it is not clear whether it will become so before an election), its message is clear: so-called vulnerable people do not deserve care.
Legislators were recently accepting written evidence to help them in their development of the Criminal Justice Bill. It received 64 pieces of written evidence relating to all parts of the 184-page bill, including many from those with expertise in self-harm (and some with lived-experience, including ourselves), unanimously stating that the offence will harm rather than help those with experience of self-harm. It is not clear that this evidence has had any impact: not one of those submissions led to an invite to give oral evidence before parliament (which is often how the process works). If there has been consultation with mental health organisations, it has happened behind closed doors with no public record.
While the government is willing to legislate in our name, they show a blatant disregard for our concerns when we raise them. This speaks volumes. Our deaths are used to virtue signal by an often cruel and dismissive government, while the perspectives of those who the offence will impact are ignored. It is exactly the opposite of what the Disability Justice movement has been shouting for years; it is everything about us, without us. Wrong in any circumstance, this tactic feels even more perverse when policy “wins” are justified in the name of deaths which were no doubt (at least in part) due to issues created by the very people creating these offences.
Nobody should be pressured or coerced into hurting themselves. This is clearly and abjectly wrong. But these new offences do not achieve these things, instead, they put the very people they seek to protect at risk. Making it illegal to “encourage or assist” self-harm (with no qualifiers or defences) risks harm reduction efforts, and may criminalise people who are, for whatever reasons, sharing positive or ambivalent experiences of their own self-harm, or providing essential harm reduction support (which does not dissuade but provides information/tools to self-harm in less dangerous ways). Instead of listening to the hundreds of us who raised our concerns, the government pushed on, citing our own names as justification for their actions.
But this is not a government that cares about us. From scrapping long-awaited reforms to the Mental Health Act, publishing a painfully weak Disability Action Plan, or proposing explicitly transphobic healthcare policy — our lives are clearly not a priority. It is far easier (and cheaper) to criminalise us and to make us responsible for each others’ deaths, than it is to respond to the material conditions that make us sick in the first place. The government can and will do what it wants, but our message remains clear: not in our name.