Could tragic Hayley's Coronation Street plot really lead to a rise in suicides?
Coronation Street's right-to-die storyline touched millions, but, asks Nel Staveley, is there a risk Hayley Cropper's overdose death will have an alarming copycat legacy?
A staggering 10.6 million viewers tuned in to witness Coronation Street's Hayley Cropper's emotional departure from the soap.
But on this occasion, it isn't the figures that really matter (apart from to ITV bosses, of course). What matters, as splashed across the national media, is how the episode tackled the issue of "right-to-die" and assisted suicide – when Hayley, one of Corrie's favourite characters, chose to end her life while she still could, rather than waiting for the unbearable deterioration from terminal pancreatic cancer.
It's a topic that was seared into the nation's conscience two years ago when Tony Nicholson, who suffered locked-in-syndrome, very publicly and passionately campaigned for his right to die.
It's one that will rear its head again later this year, too, when Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill, allowing a terminally ill person to choose the manner and timing of their death, will be debated in the House of Lords.
The death of Hayley Cropper, played by actress Julie Hesmondhalgh, was undeniably acted out with dignity and sensitivity. But it was her ending her life, not her husband, Roy, or anyone else.
She told him not to touch the cup she drank her lethal cocktail of drugs from, so that he couldn't be implicated in her death.
Perhaps the storyline will now unfold to cover the issue more, but otherwise, it basically side-stepped the emotionally loaded "right-to-die/assisted suicide" debate, and instead simply showed a desperate woman taking her own life.
While this is, without doubt, still a worthy subject matter in itself, it's also a risky one.
"There's extensive research which demonstrates inappropriate portrayal, or reporting of suicide can lead to 'copycat' behaviour among vulnerable people," points out Rachel Kirby-Rider, executive director of fundraising and communications for Samaritans, the charity which operates 24/7 helplines for anybody in need of emotional support.
For this reason, Samaritans has exhaustive guidelines about dealing with suicide in the media, and, indeed, worked very closely with Coronation Street to ensure Hayley's storyline was sensitively and respectfully dealt with.
There was no mention of the drugs Hayley used to end her life and the Samaritans' helpline number was flagged up at the end of the programme, offering support for anyone affected by the plot.
But, notes Professor Craig Jackson, head of psychology at Birmingham City University, the very mention of suicide can be potentially damaging.
"There's evidence that when suicide is reported in the media or news, it does influence other individuals with suicidal thoughts to go ahead," he says.
"Media coverage, whether it's soaps, books or newspapers, motivates those who perhaps had suicidal thoughts before, and it puts back into their minds that dying is better than living.
"This is particularly true for those who have attempted suicide before and failed.
"Evidence from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows there are around one million suicide deaths a year around the world – but 10-20m attempts," Jackson adds.
"Those who attempted won't have 'got it out of their system'. Figures show those people are 23 times more likely to die by suicide than those who haven't attempted it before."
Of course, suicide is the result of a complex mix of reasons – it's not just one bad day or a row, Jackson points out.
"But even a little thing in the Press can push people," he says.
Norway is a simple example of this.
"There's the myth that Scandinavian countries all have high suicide rates because of the lack of light, but it's not true," Jackson says. "The UK has a suicide rate of 17 per 100,000 a year, and yes, Denmark and Finland have more at 18/19 per 100,000.
"But Norway, with the same hours of darkness, has 14. Some years ago, the country banned reporting of suicide in the Press."
The notion that this reduced suicide rate is linked with the reduction of suicide reporting in the media, is supported by the rise in calls to the Samaritans the day after the Coronation Street episode aired.
The charity's helpline received 30% more calls from 5pm on Monday to 5pm on Tuesday, compared with the same period the week before.
While a statement from the charity accepted "while this increase may have been a result of Coronation Street's storyline, we are also aware January is a tough month for many people", it can't help but point towards the influence of suicide in the media.
This is only the short-term effect too; we still have the long-term effect to face, and Professor Jackson predicts that a small spike in suicide rates is likely to be noticed around 30-60 days on from January 23 when it aired.
The method of Hayley's death is also a danger to those vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. While the programme didn't show the drugs she used, and did not in any way "glamorise" suicide, Jackson says they also did not show what would be "some horrific last moments".
"Reports show many people believe that suicide by overdose would be clean and the least traumatic, particularly for any loved ones who might find them, but in fact it would be a very painful and distressing death," he points out.
He's also concerned that the storyline – while "bold and brave" – was another step in normalising death as a solution.
Samaritans is open 24/7, 365 days a year, tel: 08457 909 090 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For support about cancer, Macmillan Cancer Support is there to talk whenever you need, tel: 0808 808 000 or visit www.macmillan.org.uk