We use a word to describe the recent “pandemic” of online suicide. This term has essentially become almost obsolete — and what a shame.
A virus infects the body, if at all, and we might realize that in just a few days. But when suicide starts happening in such large numbers on the internet, sometimes as a pathogen does, we need to closely look for an infectious agent and a possible cure.
We might not need a vaccine: Some studies have shown that the enzyme responsible for one cause of suicidal ideation on the internet (called porphyrin in AIDS) could be altered or taken out, and suicide rates would drop drastically. In fact, even the use of “pandemic” instead of “epidemic” might help to make this finding more applicable to suicide on the internet.
Now, I am not making a blanket statement that the increase in suicides online is a positive thing. No, we might have one mode of prevention that is being under-used now, but perhaps this extra accountability will be great over the long term.
Another method we should be practicing is to encourage people to report online conversations they don’t like to these “scam sites”. They can also provide survivors with support at self-help sites like NEXUS Counseling Services. As my colleague Aaron.J.Gonzalez points out: “The internet is such a powerful tool for so many people. If we can use it to bring attention to the needs of our neighbors and friends, we’ll hopefully prevent tragedies.”
An additional problem is that there is very little transparency regarding the frequency and content of these so-called suicide chat sites. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning in 2017 that many suicide chat sites provide false information about the safety of what they host.
Another issue is that some of these chats can be directed at children, some of whom may be offline but have phones. This can lead to vulnerable people taking their own lives. Ideally, communications on these “adults-only” sites should be age-appropriate. In addition, victims should not be allowed to complete or initiate a chat. The decoy chat that I did, which was directed at an adult, ended when I called the tip line. There were no signals from a suicidal person that would have prompted me to alert authorities to their situation.
Finally, we need to keep in mind that some people are simply not good at taking care of themselves. They may feel less capable of self-care, resulting in their obtaining suicide help elsewhere. But we also must not give up hope for people in this situation, as they, too, can be helped with the proper support.