This year I finished my degree. As part of my final year, I of course had to write a thesis. I knew I wanted to write my thesis on suicide – but I didn’t want to focus on fluctuating statistics, whose rates are higher, what are the economic reasons for it etc, to be honest I really felt like those avenues would bore me and I’d lose interest really quickly. I didn’t want my thesis which is such a big chunk of work to feel like a chore.
So I chose to analyse content from a “pro-suicide” website. This website has been around for years and I had (through sheer curiosity) explored some parts of it many times in the past. I always felt really uncomfortable with the content I saw there. It seemed so toxic, dangerous, encouraging (towards suicide) and sometimes very cruel.
Having now explored a large number of posts from different sections of this website and having submitted my thesis for grading, I’d really like to churn out some of my thoughts, reflections and observations in a less formal way.
What’s on the website?
There’s way too much content on this website to dream of condensing for a blog post – I couldn’t even do that for my thesis so I won’t bother trying. Some features on the site include:
- General Discussion Forums (Talk about anything)
- Suicide discussion forums (Talk about life, death, reasons for suicide, seek advice on suicide methods, solidify suicide plans etc)
- Partners Forum – For people who plan to die by suicide but want to die with someone else.
- Resources (suicide-guides/manuals)
These bullet points are just to offer sort of an overview of the content there – there’s much, much more.
Individuals on this website speak openly and freely about suicide, suicide plans or why they are feeling suicidal – without fear of being censored, judged or criticized for being too honest or abrupt. At first the honesty and up-front language can seem alien but that’s the discomfort in me, that’s my problem and that’s one of the larger issues at play here. Our discomfort should not be put before someone else’s honesty.
Fear of rejection, judgement, making others uncomfortable or even involuntary admission to psychiatric units are some of the many reasons people who feel suicidal do not want to engage with friends, family and even professionals about their suicidal thoughts.
Why is this website still publicly accessible?
This is something I’ve wondered for years now. It’s something that has troubled me for a long time, having read the dangerous “how-to” content as well as articles from around the world where people found search histories on their loved-ones phones/laptops showing that they had accessed extremely dangerous content which possibly factored in their death.
One of the findings of my thesis is that having analysed a good number of posts one of the largest themes that emerged from the data was that people used this space as a tool for social connection. Not in the way we use Twitter or Facebook – sharing random thoughts or ideas but for social connection that is rooted in genuine understanding.
For the most part, people posting on this website and interacting with users are or have experienced suicidal thoughts. From my perspective – an outsider looking in (never interacting), I saw this huge solidarity among users – solidarity in suffering.
This is really interesting for lots of reasons – but one thing I wanted to know more about is why people who are feeling suicidal would go to this online space rather than seek help from a professionals and let me tell you there’s a lot of reasons. Most of them I won’t lay out here because I feel like they’re part of a larger conversation that needs to happen on a national and policy level – things that the professional spaces need to work on changing NOT things that people who feel suicidal need to change.
Anyway, this connection and this solidarity in suffering became way easier to understand when I thought about it in terms of what Brené Brown says about empathy and more importantly empathy vs sympathy. If you don’t know what any of that means you can watch a short YouTube clip on Brené Brown and empathy here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
So Brené says that “Empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection”. So when professionals (with the best of intentions) say something like “Wow, that must be awful for sure – have you tried this?” that can really be very unhelpful whereas on this website someone might come back with “I remember feeling that way, it’s truly awful but if you like I can share with you what really helped me at that time and we can talk more about it” – HUGE difference and that’s an example of empathy vs sympathy.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating for these spaces that promote or provide suicide manuals or guides, that really scares me – I’m just saying this space exists and instead of ignoring it we could be trying to learn what drives people here instead of to therapeutic spaces. We should be starting conversations on what we might be doing wrong and what we could be doing better.
If we want to know how to keep people safe from suicide shouldn’t we be asking or at the very LEAST listening to people who are at risk of suicide on how we can do that?
There’s so many more things I would like to reflect on specific to my time spent on this website – observations, people who have taken on different roles in these spaces, language used, stories and lessons I’ve learned from there but that’s all for another day.
If you’ve made it as far as here thank you for reading, also if you feel like you need support The Samaritans can be reached on freephone 116123.