‘I’ve witnessed first-hand what suicide leaves behind,’ MSC co-chair Gurdas Singh told the annual representative meeting in Belfast.
‘The act alone is awful, but the aftermath is like an explosion and you’re left with nothing but pain over what could have been for that person; the love, the friendship the family.’
Mr Singh’s decision to share such personal testimony publicly came as part of a debate into the influence of social media and the dangers it can pose to children, young and vulnerable people’s mental health.
As an instantly accessible, ever-present and frequently unpoliced digital medium, there have been growing concerns about online bullying and harassment as well as the availability of often highly explicit content promoting everything from anorexia to self-harming and methods of suicide.
The role of social media has been highlighted in the deaths of a number of children and young people in recent years, with health secretary Matt Hancock warning social media firms that they must do more to restrict damaging content on their platforms.
Mr Singh was successful in his plea for the BMA to support calls for binding standards on social media companies to prevent the promotion of suicide and self-harm and to implement mental health safeguards for vulnerable users.
Belfast infectious diseases consultant Sara Hedderwick said that it was unclear whether viewing social media content would itself cause people to develop anorexia, but said there was evidence showing that those who spend greater amounts of time on social media were more likely to experience issues around body image and eating disorders.
Glasgow medical student Lewis O’Connor argued that it was misleading to regard social media as being somehow separate from society, rather than an extension of it.
He further warned that taking a censorious approach to online content would not solve underlying issues connected to mental illness, and that attempting to enforce this through the prosecution of social media companies would likely prove impractical.
However, Mr Singh said that the threat of punishment was the only way firms would change their ways.
‘Looking to social media more specifically, we know the high prevalence of cyber bullying and the impact it can have on an isolated individual,’ he said.
‘Very vulnerable members of society can be persuaded into undertaking self-harm and suicide regardless of their situation.’
‘As doctors and medical students, we don’t want people to die by suicide. The only way to stop this is by punishing those who let it continue for the sake of profit.’
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