Media Spotlight

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Suicide and the Internet

Can online suicide sites increase suicide risk?

With suicide ranking as one of the top three causes of death in the 15-44 age group in many countries, the role that the media plays, especially in cases of “copycat” suicides following high-profile deaths, is still a controversial subject. And that is particularly true with the rise of the Internet and the numerous “suicide sites” providing information on effective methods of committing suicide. Along with providing information suicide methods, some sites even include discussion forums and chatrooms for “suicide groupies” to discuss suicide and even encourage susceptible people to kill themselves when they might have sought help instead. 

In one grim example of the potential effect of online suicide sites,  William Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in 2011 of two counts of encouraging people to commit suicide, one in Britain in 2005 and another in Canada in 2008.  Melchert-Dinkel, a licensed nurse and father of two, pleaded guilty to posing as a depressed woman on suicide chatrooms to encourage vulnerable people to commit suicide. Though he was only convicted of two deaths, he admitted to encouraging dozens of people to kill themselves, often by falsely entering into suicide pacts with them. 

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But what is the real impact of online suicide sites?  Although the Internet has become the primary source of information for most young people, how the proliferation of suicide information sites, forums, and chatrooms increases the likelihood of suicide is still not well-understood. While some researchers warn of the danger of these sites producing suicide clusters, others suggest that they may actually reduce suicide risk by providing potentially suicidal people with a support network they might otherwise lack. 

Unfortunately, the quality and nature of online sites for people contemplating suicide can vary widely. Along with actual suicide-prevention sites offering emotional support and treatment referrals are the “pro-suicide” sites offering advice on methods for committing suicide. Some of those sites even offer mail-order “suicide kits” with tools for suicide and a copy of Final Exit, the “bible” for the pro-suicide movement. Given the nature of internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo, which type of site turns up in a search often depends on the specific keywords used rather than the actual intent of the person conducting the search.

A longitudinal study of the effect of different Internet sites on potentially suicidal people was recently published in the journal Crisis. Conducted by Hajime Sueki of Tokyo’s Wako University, the study presented the results of two online surveys with the initial survey screening out people at imminent risk for suicide (and who were provided links to suicide-prevention websites).   In the second survey of the 1,000 respondents of the first survey, 850 surveys were collected (429 females, 421 males) which included questions about suicide-related Internet behaviour along with scales measuring suicide ideation, depression, anxiety, and loneliness.  

Based on statistical analysis of the findings, Sueki concluded that suicide ideation, depression, anxiety, and loneliness do increase with certain types of suicide-related Internet use.   Despite previous speculation that suicide-related Internet use might actually decrease suicide ideation due to support received, that does not appear to be the case. It certainly doesn’t appear to reduce loneliness which is contrary to what previous studies have reported. 

Certain kinds of suicide-related Internet activities appear to have a strong impact on suicide ideation.  That included searching for methods to commit suicide and viewing suicide videos. Not surprisingly, suicide ideation rose sharply depending on how frequently people used the Internet for suicide-related activities. At the same time, depression and suicide ideation also motivated people to use the Internet for suicide-related activities, thus establishing a vicious circle with suicidal people becoming more suicidal with their Internet activity.

While the study focused exclusively on Japanese participants meaning that different results may occur in other cultures, similar results have been found in virtually every country where the Internet is widely used.   It is also possible that the study results can only be generalized to heavy Internet users and non-Internet users may turn to other sources for information on suicide methods.  Age may also be a factor since all of the participants in the study were in their twenties or thirties with no older adults being included. Still, the powerful role that suicide sites can play in influencing vulnerable people to kill themselves cannot be ignored.

So what steps can be taken to prevent suicidal people from accessing potentially harmful sites?   While banning suicide sites outright seems impractical, due to issues relating to censorship and the decentralized nature of the Internet, active measures need to be taken to prevent the harm that such sites can cause. Along with providing better policing of suicide sites to prevent further cases of suicide “voyeurs” such as William Melchert-Dinkel,  authorities such as Dr. Sueki propose that search engines should block suicide websites that encourage suicide and/or provide better filters to prevent pro-suicide sites from appearing at the top of search pages.    

While suicide prevention websites provide valuable help for people contemplating killing themselves, the current Internet is a virtual minefield with online searches being as likely to turn up pro-suicide sites as they are of people finding the actual help that they need. Until we learn how to provide better control over the sort of resources people contemplating suicide actually receive, the current suicide epidemic will likely continue.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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