Five things I have learnt about pesticide suicide in the last year

One year on from joining the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP), Communications & Development Officer Ellie Roger reflects back on what she has learnt.

*This article discusses suicidal behaviour. If you have questions on self-harm or feel suicidal, call 116 123 to speak to a Samaritan (UK) or use this link to find an international helpline*

It has been a year since I started my new job as Communication & Development Officer at the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention.

It is fair to say that I have learnt a lot about pesticide suicide over the last year. While it would be impossible to list everything, here are my top five takeaways.

Ellie Roger (right) visits a hospital in Bangladesh. Image credit: Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston

1. What ‘pesticide suicide’ means

I would love to say that I was drawn to the job through an interest in, and understanding of, the issue. However, in truth, I had never heard of the term ‘pesticide suicide’ before.

I am not alone here. It has become clear to me that, in the UK at least, it is not something that many people are aware of.

Over the last year, I have been asked countless times by friends or family to explain my job. When I tell them that pesticide ingestion is one of the most common causes of suicide worldwide, responsible for 150,000 deaths every year, this is often followed by a look of amazement and the exclamation, ‘I’d never heard of that!’.

2. People don’t always intend to die

The next question I am likely to face is, ‘but won’t people just find another way to die?’.

There is an assumption that everyone who intentionally self-poisons with pesticides intends to die. Therefore, even if we are successful in preventing their death from pesticides, they will just find another way to kill themselves.

I have learnt that this is not the case.

Many people ingest pesticide as an act of self-harm, not suicide. They do not intend to die. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of the toxicity of the pesticide they consume. Some pesticides are so lethal that just one sip is enough to kill them.

3. Suicide prevention isn’t just about mental health

While mental health remains vitally important in suicide prevention, it is not the only way to prevent deaths. Another approach is restricting access to lethal means of suicide.

This is the case for pesticide suicide. The most effective way to prevent deaths is to reduce the availability and accessibility of highly hazardous pesticides. This is best achieved through government regulation to ban or phase out lethal pesticides.

Regulation will not stop people self-harming with pesticides, but it will prevent deaths, allowing people to survive and access support. This approach is recognised and promoted by the World Health Organisation.

4. There are global inequalities

There is a simple reason why people in the UK have never heard of this major global health problem. This is because pesticide suicide is a particular problem in low- and middle-income countries, such as rural communities in South East Asia.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to visit both Nepal and Bangladesh. I have met people who have self-poisoned and have seen how easy it is for vulnerable people living in rural communities to access pesticides that are stored in homes and sold locally without controls.  

I have also learnt a lot about global inequalities. Several things in particular have struck me:

  • Double standards in trade of pesticides: Many of the lethal pesticides used for self-harm and suicide are already banned in high-income countries (e.g. Europe). However, this does not stop these countries from producing and exporting these ‘banned’ products to low- and middle-income countries.
  • No level playing field in research: It is difficult for researchers working on suicide prevention in low- and middle-income counties to receive the same platform for their work. I have heard multiple accounts (including CPSP team members in Sri Lanka) of prominent researchers being denied visas to attend or speak at international conferences.

5. Communicating suicide is difficult!

Over the last year, I have been grappling with the concept of ‘safe messaging’. Without a doubt, this has been my biggest challenge.

My background is in communication, not suicide prevention. However, I am acutely aware that people who are suicidal, or have lived experience of suicide, may be viewing content I put out. I therefore have a responsibility to ensure that it does not inadvertently cause harm.

I have learnt about trigger warnings, suicide helplines and WHO guidelines on how the media reports suicide. The guidelines advise against reporting specific methods of suicide; however, this is tricky when the work of the centre specifically focuses on one particular method.

I know that there are things I did not get quite right this year and that I have a lot more to learn. However, I believe that it is possible to strike a balance between awareness raising and safe messaging. Ultimately, the most important message is that suicide is preventable.

Ellie Roger

Ellie Roger
Communication and Development Officer
, Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP)

Ellie Roger is an experienced communications, events and engagement professional with over 10 years of experience working in the not-for-profit sector. She joined CPSP in January 2022 to provide communications support for the centre, helping to raise awareness of both pesticide suicide and CPSP’s work.