Nov 20 2008
An emotionally vulnerable young college student committed suicide by lethal drug overdose while talking to others via his webcam last week. After threatening to kill himself, the teen was alternatively encouraged and discouraged by those watching to make good on the threat – some viewers apparently even debated whether the dose he took was lethal.
The senselessness tragedy of a teen suicide is always painful. But the idea that hundreds watched as he ‘deathcast’ – broadcast his death live – is sickening. Sickening is also an apt descriptor for the ‘justification’ some viewers gave for encouraging his actions; they maintained that this young man had threatened to kill himself in the past, and assumed this time it was just more talk – as if that made their urging more excusable.
When someone finally notified the website’s moderator of the situation, the company traced the teen’s location and called the police, but the young man was dead before help arrived.
Over twelve hours elapsed between the time the young man first posted his intent to kill himself online and his death. Twelve hours.
In the future, what can/should be done differently?
Sadly, this was not the first suicide played out via the web, nor is suicide a web phenomenon. There are plenty of sickening examples where people goaded others to suicide where the Internet was not a factor. There are plenty of cases where bystanders clearly saw that help was needed, yet failed to provide any. What the Internet does bring is immediacy, a potentially much larger audience, and a greater emotional distance between the person threatening suicide and the spectators. This last point is particularly sobering as the anonymity and lack of accountability of spectators often seeking entertainment often brings out the basest of human behavior.
Many will be tempted to throw blame on the young man’s family, friends, doctors etc., but their actions in protecting this teen is something we have no knowledge of. They may have done everything humanly possible to protect and support him, or provided no support at all.
What we have more insight into are the actions of those who interacted with, or watched this young man online. Every viewer who urged this young man to complete his suicide bears guilt. Every viewer who failed to alert authorities, failed to demonstrate even the most basic humanity. Its very nature brought the parable of the Good Samaritan to mind.
The best explanation I’ve found for why people take their own lives is embodied in a quote that I have been unable to attribute to an author “Suicide happens when pain exceeds the ability to cope.”
There are excellent resources online for anyone struggling with depression or suicide; unfortunately there are far more sites that make the problems worse where users egg on those in trouble, or post ways in which to commit suicide.
If you or a loved one need help, or if you come across someone struggling with suicide online, seek professional help through responsible websites like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.