Encountering Crisis Online: What to Do When Someone Threatens Suicide

8 years ago

90-day-Jane started her blog with a very clear mission and message. She planned to kill herself. Her blog would chronicle the 90 days leading up to her suicide. Her "About Me" introduction read:

I am going to kill myself in 90 days. What else should I say? This blog is not a cry for help or even to get attention. It's simply a public record of my last 90 days of existence. I'm not depressed and nothing extremely horrible lead me to this decision. But does it really have to?...My generation has had no great depression, no great war and our biggest obstacle is beating Halo 3. So, if I feel like saying 'game over', why can't I?

Abraham Biggs's intentions were clear, too. He said in his blog and on a bodybuilding forum that he, too, planned to commit suicide. He posted his suicide letter on the forum and he  linked his letter to a live feed on Jason.tv, inviting everyone to watch. Part of his message read:

I have let everyone down and I feel as though I will never change or never improve...I am in love with a girl and I know that I am not good enough for her. I have come to believe that my life has all been meaningless. I keep trying and failing. I have thought about and attempted suicide many times in the past.

Lots of people joined 90-Day-Jane and Abraham on their quests. Some urged them to reconsider. Some commiserated and some egged them on. 90-Day-Jane was surprised and seemingly, at times, overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and criticism her blog garnered:

I didn't think anyone would find it or even care if they did. I guess I was wrong...The Internet is completely unpredictable and I have put myself out there. Unintentional or not, I made my bed and now I have to lie in it.

 She not only got the attention of readers and fellow bloggers, her blog sounded an alarm for mental health professionals online. John M. Grohol, Psyd, wrote on psychcentral.com:

Intended or not, this blog is likely to contribute to an increase in the risk of suicide of people who learn about it. If the blog makes it to the mainstream media...we're afraid of what the suicide contagion effects might be.

The comments generated by Abraham's posts on the bodybuilding forum were mostly expressions of disbelief and taunts. According to an ABCNews.com report, commenters called him a "coward," a "faggot," and a "dick." The Huffington Post coverage said that others discussed the proper dosage of medication for his suicide.

After 89 days, 90-Day-Jane revealed that though all of her words were sincere and reflective of her feelings, her blog was only a well-intentioned art project. She is alive, apparently well and has discussed her "art project" at movielol.org. Abraham Biggs is not alive and well. While the videocam rolled and people watched and commented, Abraham took an overdose of pills, curled up on his bed and died. He was 19 years old.

90-Day-Jane was not the first suicide hoax online, nor was Abraham's the first to be live-streamed. But they both signal the increasing trend of young people expressing their moments of crisis online. And they illustrate the enormous interest in these events.

Many of us who encounter someone's words of desperation or harmful intent in a blog or forum are extremely disturbed and alarmed. We want to help or intervene, but we don't know if we should act; if the expression is real; and if so, what to do. Suicidal expressions online are unique in that the person in pain is likely a stranger. We might not know an identity or where he or she lives. We don't know if they are sincere, just blowing off steam, or pulling off a carefully orchestrated art experiment.

Dr. Elvira Aletta of ExploreWhatsNext.com, practicing clinical psychologist, mother of two teens and blogger at ewnblog.com, says that fundamentally these details don't matter. We should assume the person expressing suicidal intentions is serious. We should act swiftly and with the goal of connecting him or her with professional help. The following is an excerpt from my interview with Dr. Aletta about online crisis and what to do when you encounter it...

GC: What should a reader/responder know about responding to someone who is expressing suicidal thoughts on the Internet?

Dr. Aletta: First, you are not responsible. The frustration of believing someone is in danger of taking their life and you can do nothing about it is terrible. But the fact is, there is very little you can do when you know nothing about the person, not even where they live.

If you do know them: Do not leave him or her alone. Stay with them or find someone to stay with them until you can get help. Try to get the person to seek immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Eliminate access to firearms or other potential tools for suicide, including unsupervised access to medications. (Via the National Institute of Mental Health)

GC: How do you know if they are serious or not? Does it matter?

Dr. Aletta: You may not know if they are serious and it doesn’t matter. Experts say we need to take any threat of life seriously. Threat of suicide is not a joking matter.

GC: Can a return comment or written response from a stranger really
make a difference?

Dr. Aletta:
Again, we may never know, but that doesn’t keep us from making the effort because we are human and value life.

GC: What is the best response to a stranger or virtual stranger who
expresses thoughts or plans of suicide?

Dr. Aletta: If you are leaving a comment to a post that sounds suicidal, a good response is:

I hear you are in pain. You need to talk to someone right away. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

Under no circumstances do you leave your own phone number. The AFSP [American Foundation for Suicide Prevention] says:

Do not attempt to argue someone out of suicide. Rather, let the person know you care, that he/she is not alone, that suicidal feelings are temporary and that depression can be treated. Avoid the temptation to say, 'You have so much to live for' or 'Your suicide will hurt your family.'

The website hosting service provides Contact Us info. You could try calling or emailing the administrator about what you read and where. It’s possible they could trace the location of the person through their email or login information. And then call 911.

After that, be assured that you have done everything you can.

GC: What makes the Internet environment unique for responding to people in crisis?

Dr. Aletta: The fact that so much personal, private information can be instantly made public and global makes it different. It’s not like we are reading a newspaper article filtered through a dispassionate reporter. We are reading first person accounts in real time. Unfortunately, our visceral reaction to someone in crisis is the same whether they are in front of us or on the other side of the world. Our flight-fight response goes into action, driving up anxiety.

It’s important to realize that our action in such cases may not be huge but it can still be significant, i.e. by providing the suicide prevention phone number. Then, all we can do is say a prayer and let it go.

GC: How about if that person is a teen?
Dr. Aletta: The response is the same regardless of age.

GC: The holidays are a difficult time for many. Is this kind of event-specific or seasonal depression (like SAD) any different than more general forms?

Dr. Aletta: During the holidays, we are more sensitive to those in need, whether it’s emotional or financial. But people deal with depression and consider suicide all year around. At least 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric illness such as major depression, bipolar depression, PTSD, alcoholism, substance abuse, dependence, etc.

GC: Thank you, Dr. Aletta.

The suggestion to report a person who is in crisis may seem extreme. Surely, law enforcement agencies have their hands full without the potential onslaught of Internet crisis reports.  To the contrary, says FBI Special Agent and spokesperon, Shauna Dunlap. who reiterates Dr. Aletta's directive:

If you think someone's life is in jeopardy, you report them to whomever you can-- your state or local police or the FBI. Any policing agency will take the threat seriously and get the information to the right authority. Err on the side of caution and don't try to assess the situation yourself. If you call the police, they can secure a real name and address for email and URL information and get the agency closest to the distressed person's location.

This is exactly what occurred with Abraham Biggs. Only, the calls were made 12 hours after Abraham first expressed his suicidal plan. Onlookers who became concerned after he took pills and stopped moving finally called 911 and the Jason.tv site managers, who provided the URL information to police. Police arrival to Abraham's home was captured on the live-feed. Quicker action on the part of onlookers could have saved Abraham's young life.

So whether the person who is expressing suicidal thoughts is an adult or teen, there are specific steps you can take to help:

1. Express words of concern, compassion and support via your comments or emails. Don't just be a spectator.

2. Encourage him or her to connect with a person who is trained to help. Offer numbers to a hotline like:  the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255); National Suicide Hotline at  1-800-SUICIDE (which automatically routes the call to the nearest crisis center); or the Trevor Project's LGBTQ Hotline at 866-4-U-Trevor.

3. Call the authorities, like your local police, with as much information as you can gather, such as name, city and state, web address and email address.

4. Once you've taken these steps, let it go. You've done all you can.

Have you encountered crisis online? Did you feel that you can and should help?

Talk about it in the Family Connections Group now.

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