The Cry For Help the Web Didn't Answer

5 years ago

Last month, Warren and Kellie Penpraze made the heart-breaking decision to take their 19-year-old daughter Olivia off life support. Olivia had been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt resulted in irreversible absence of brain function.

When the grieving father went to notify his daughter's friends using her laptop, Warren stumbled on Olivia's Tumblr, a microblog with more than 900 pages of posts chronicling the last two years of the teen's struggle with suicidal feelings, as well as an account on Vimeo, a video-sharing platform where Olivia had posted vlogs.

"I started to self-harm by 2008 and also made my first suicide attempt," Olivia told viewers in a video posted two months prior to her last attempt (reposted here). She held up several hospital bracelets. "I have attempted suicide more times than I can count."

Olivia Penpraze, via Vimeo

She assures viewers that things do get better. But just a few minutes later, the confessional takes a dark turn: "Every year since 2008 I have attempted suicide on the first of May. But I think I'm not going to fail this year. I'm sorry."

Supportive and cruel comments alike filled Olivia's inbox on Tumblr. Still, no one made an attempt to contact her parents.

A few weeks later, Olivia posted another video (reposted here. This one was more desperate. Olivia told viewers she wanted to say goodbye.

"I know people say I meant a lot to them but I don't know that I can believe that, but if I do mean a lot to you, I'm sorry," the teen said. "I know that a lot of you mean a lot to me but I've just lost contact with everything. I don't know. I'm sorry."

It was the last video Olivia posted.

"We are finding out now there are kids on her Facebook who actually know her on the Tumblr account," her father told the Herald Sun. "If she says she is going to do something on this date they could have told us. Even if it was a false alarm, we could have done something."

In a thread about this on the social network Google Plus, someone asked the question people like to ask when tragedy strikes the young: where were the parents?

I remember being a teen. I was close with my parents but there were things they didn't know, among them the fact that I was compulsively chronicling my life -- online. There were no blogs at first, but there were bulletin boards and, later, hosting sites. I was careful to cover my tracks and when I couldn't, I left so many tracks that any attempt to identify where I was spending most of my time would have been a nightmare.

A couple of my friends who also wrote online knew about my site, but none of them broke the unspoken vow that we were not to share the things we read in each other's digital spaces. Writing into a void helped us share aspects of ourselves that we'd not normally known how to broach and we treasured that privilege.

I can only wonder what I might have done if one of them had written about taking her own life. Would I have violated our trust and told someone? Would I have tried to handle it myself, for better or worse? Or would I have disbelieved her, because it's easier to imagine people are being melodramatic rather than it is to deal with their hurt?

Suffering is hard to face. The suffering of others -- the suffering we are helpless to end -- is harder still. But we need to have that courage. We need it with our friends and we need it with the strangers we stumble upon online who are sharing their individual heartaches.

And I think that when we next sit down with the teens in our lives, we ought to ask whether they have ever encountered posts online that made them worry about a friend and let them know that they can tell us about it, that we know pain is real and loneliness is debilitating. We ought to let them know that they're not alone, that they can lean on us, and they can come to us if they fear one of their friends might be in trouble.

Have you talked to your kids about this? Share your approach in the comments.


Warning Signs of Suicide at WebMD:

Warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide include: always talking or thinking about death or suicide; deep sadness, loss of interest in things one used to care about, trouble sleeping and eating; manifestation of a "death wish" or the tempting of fate by taking risks; comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless and "it would be better if I wasn't here" or "I want out;" sudden, unexpected swings from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy; attempts to tie up loose ends, calling or visiting people to say “goodbye.”

Be especially concerned if a person is exhibiting any of these warning signs and has attempted suicide in the past. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, between 20 percent and 50 percent of people who commit suicide have had a previous attempt.

First, if someone you know appears to be depressed and is contemplating suicide, take that person seriously. Listen to what he or she is saying. Take the initiative to ask that person what he or she is planning. But don't attempt to argue him or her out of committing suicide. Rather, let the person know that you care and understand and are listening. Avoid statements like: "You have so much to live for."

When You Fear Someone Mat Take Their Life at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

If a friend or loved one is threatening, talking about or making plans for suicide, these are signs of an acute crisis. Do not leave the person alone. Remove from the vicinity any firearms, drugs or sharp objects that could be used for suicide. Take the person to an emergency room or walk-in clinic at a psychiatric hospital. If a psychiatric facility is unavailable, go to your nearest hospital or clinic. If the above options are unavailable, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Suicide Facts at Suicide Awareness Voices of Education:

Suicide takes the lives of nearly 30,000 Americans every year. There are twice as many deaths due to suicide than HIV/AIDS. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S. – homicide comes in at fifteenth.

For young people 15 to 24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death. There are three female suicide attempts for each male attempt. The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression. Suicide rates in the United States are highest in the spring.

Research has shown medications and therapy to be effective suicide prevention. Eighty percent of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully.

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex and Health on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT

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