Imagine logging onto an Internet site on a night when you were feeling particularly depressed and discouraged, only to find the greeting, "Sorry You're Still Here". That is what frequently happened to Josh, a 19 year old young man, with recurring suicidal thoughts. Josh often frequented an Internet suicide chat room, where others happily posted suggestions for methods of suicide. Josh did eventually take his own life. His mother explained that he often would go to these sites, and have all night conversations with others, who were feeling as miserable as he was.
Internet suicide chat rooms and forums are rising steadily in popularity with all ages, but particularly the 16-24 year old age group. Not only do these sites promote suicide as a civil right, but they also teach the person how to kill themselves, and give suggestions about how to facilitate the chosen method. Many mental health experts, and family members, have alleged that these groups actually encourage people to kill themselves. They freely give advice on planning funerals, writing goodbye letters, and one site even provides an "agony calculator" to determine the pain and predicted success rates of various suicide methods. They consider anyone who may take an opposite stance on suicide, to be trolls or "shiny happies" and such people are met with extreme hostility.
Suzy Gonzales, 19, had a full scholarship to Florida State University. Though she had a beautiful smile, she was depressed and wanted to kill herself. As she poured out her despair on an Internet pro suicide site, she was told that killing herself was an acceptable way to end her misery, and then given directions about how to obtain a deadly dose of potassium cyanide online. She was also told how to mix it into a lethal concoction. After she fed her kittens, and cleaned her apartment, she checked into a Tallahassee motel, stirred the cyanide into a glass of water, and drank the poison. She wrote to her family, the police, and her best friend through time delayed emails. A member of the online suicide site had also told her how to prepare the emails. Suzy had posted more than 100 messages to the group. Her parents did not know of her involvement with the site until after her death. Her father spoke with rage in his voice about the online group, "...it was like throwing gasoline on a fire."
Michael Benjamins posted to one of the suicide groups, asking for a reliable way to kill himself, because he feared he could not pass a background check to get a gun, due to prior hospitalization for mental illness. The answers came fast and furious-from suggestions about how to slit his wrists, to ideas about driving into a brick wall at high speed. Sadly, not one person asked why he wanted to die. Later, he learned that his hospitalization did not prevent him from purchasing a gun, and he walked into Walmart and purchased a .410 gauge shotgun. He then posted to the group that he was "looking forward to death." When Michael put the gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger, his online friends at the pro suicide discussion board had known of his plans for weeks, but failed to notify the police.
Paul Kelly, of the United Kingdom, is a man on a mission. His 18 year old son, Simon, hanged himself, and left messages on his website thanking his suicide chat room friends. His father lamented, "I had no idea these sites existed before the death of my son...The people behind these sites seem to be totally cynical in their desire to encourage and enable people to kill themselves." Mr. Kelly is trying desperately to shut down these pro suicide chat rooms and websites.
In the United States, committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide is not a criminal offense. But helping another person to end their life is a criminal act. The one exception is the state of Oregon. Since 1997, Oregon has allowed those who are terminally ill and experiencing uncontrollable pain to get a lethal prescription from their doctor, in order to end their suffering. Even though helping a person to commit suicide is illegal in the U.S., the websites are not illegal. Simply providing information about suicide is, apparently, not unlawful. (Families of deceased loved ones fail to see the distinction.) They feel that to sanction suicide is to encourage it.
As a responsible and caring writer, I will not include any of the website addresses found in my research (other than the sources I must list), but I will tell you that I accessed several of these forums, and found them to be a horrifying subculture. One suggested numerous things to do to "tie the loose ends" such as finding a new home for your pets, closing email accounts, and deleting and stopping email correspondence with suicide websites, so that survivors cannot access incoming mail. There was also information about leaving suicide notes, and the names of services that provided time-delayed email. Another gave pointers about how to give information to a friend who wants to commit suicide, without actually assisting them, which as previously mentioned, is illegal. It also suggested that if you want to kill yourself, a suicide pact with someone else would be an alternative to a lonely death. The slang term for committing suicide was "catching the bus." One website stated that they did not "encourage" suicide, but their definition of encouragement was very deceiving. Defining it, they wrote, "Encouraging suicide means that you directly tell a person to commit suicide. Anything else that you do that causes a person to feel positive about suicide, or that facilitates suicide, does not count as suicide encouragement." On one pro suicide website, I read the conversation between two men, who were discussing whether a 12 gauge shotgun would recoil in an attempted suicide. After a few minutes on these sites, I could not stomach anymore of what they were promoting.
What can be done to abolish these forums? Very little, according to Keith Hawton, Professor of Psychiatry at Oxford University's Center for Suicide Research. He admits that he and his colleagues have not come up with a way for the sites to be regulated. He states, "I don't see a solution to these sites. There seems to be no way of stopping or controlling them-just a sad, awful proliferation which will lead to the deaths of more people, who in an alternative environment, could be saved." He also added, "A recurring feature of these sites seems to be the presence of voyeuristic people who get their kicks from encouraging others to commit suicide. There is definitely a seductive element." There are petitions online to try and have these sites removed, but no indication that they have been successful. Confronting the problem in the United States, with legislation, is complicated by the First Amendment and free speech rights. Trying to police the World Wide Web is virtually impossible (pun intended.) For younger teens who still live at home, parents need to monitor their Internet access. (So many of these parents had no idea that the sites existed, much less that their children were logging on to them.) The use of Internet filters would also be helpful to prevent a teenager's access. As to adults, there seems to be no solution. At least a lot of the search engines are showing suicide prevention sites more frequently in a keyword search, and the pro suicide sites seem more difficult to access, though many of them are newsgroups.
While these sites may not be the sole reason a person decides to take their own life, they certainly do nothing to discourage suicide. To the contrary, they seem to delight in encouraging it. One mother, whose 17 year old daughter made a suicide pact with other girls in a suicide chat room stated, "...But the people behind the sites should be locked up. I class it as assisted suicide. It is horrific and the pain of losing her will never, ever go away. We need to stop these sick maniacs. I want all these sites shut down. There is no excuse for not doing anything about this."
The Internet is an amazing invention, with so many positive things to offer, but sadly, it also has a disturbing dark side that cannot be denied.