In this post (number 3 if you’re reading in order) I want to explore another really big observation from my time collecting data for my thesis from a pro-suicide website – loneliness. I think it’s especially important to be talking about loneliness now in this COVID-19 world. While we are all trying as best we can to navigate our way through this pandemic we find ourselves in such an odd position. As we all stay apart and physically disconnect from each other, we might in another way be more connected than we ever were before through our use of the digital world. I think that while in one way we are incredibly lucky to have access to devices that keep us in contact with each other, in another way a lot of people realized very quickly that real life connection is something we really struggle without.
Suicide and loneliness are now being spoken about together more often. We now know that feelings of loneliness can contribute to suicide and we know that having suicidal thoughts can cause people to feel lonely.
When I began reading literature on suicide for my thesis I read some fantastic articles focused on loneliness and I learned a lot. It seemed straight forward and I felt like I grasped it. It wasn’t until I took a deep dive into one part of the website I had chosen to analyse that the loneliness aspect of suicide really landed.
There’s a section on the website called “Suicide Partners” and this section allows people to connect with others in real life in order to die by suicide. Usually people post some general information like age, gender and location and maybe their preferred suicide method. Sometimes website users in this section would talk about why they wanted a suicide partner and I quickly noticed that almost every time it could be linked to loneliness and sometimes fear.
This section of the website was really concerning for many different reasons. I wondered how many people had actually met up with a stranger or strangers from the website and had changed their mind about suicide, and what happened after that? I wondered about how many young or vulnerable people had put their information on these threads and had met up with someone who intended to harm them. For example in Japan around 2005 a man was arrested after murdering three individuals from a suicide website. He lured his victims with the promise of dying by suicide together. These types of threads are incredibly dangerous for so many reasons but people were still posting here and I really wanted to try to understand why.
In the fist blog post (Genuine Connection & Sincere Solidarity) I spoke about how connection or lack of genuine connection could be what is driving people into underground spaces like this “pro-suicide” website rather than to therapeutic spaces. Following on from that point – what happens when cyber-connection doesn’t fill that void anymore?
The best way I can understand loneliness is as a lack of connection. Feeling completely disconnected from the world and people around you. So when we find a community of people (even online) that we feel we can connect with, who understand our struggles completely and who sometimes share our suffering it can feel empowering and safe. That could explain why members of this website return often and contribute to conversation.
I remember hearing about loneliness from someone close to me who had experienced feeling suicidal. The way they described it was incredibly sad and incredibly informative. Imagine being the outsider in your own life-story. Sitting in a room full of friends and laughter, and feeling like the loneliest person in the world. Feeling like absolutely nobody sees you, hears you or gets you. Some people are so incredibly lonely and have suffered such enormous disconnection that they yearn for real life companionship from people who truly understand them even if it is just one last time.
It seems as though the genuine connection people might be finding on this website isn’t always enough to stop the suicidal thoughts. When collecting data from the “suicide partners” thread I saw that even when people find connection and solidarity in online communities or digital spaces it may only help for so long.
Research is showing that for young people, having even one trustworthy adult (One Good Adult) in their lives can be enormously helpful and beneficial to their mental health even later in life. Maybe that could offer something to think about in terms of loneliness and disconnection. If people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts had one good connection – by connection I mean someone who will not judge them for their feelings, will not interrupt when stories feel uncomfortable and will not re-route conversation when we hear the word suicidal, it could act as a protective factor against suicide.
It brings me back to the point I made before and will always make. Society’s emphasis is always on changing the suicidal individual – their actions, their coping, their sharing, their feelings etc when maybe the emphasis should be on changing how we as professionals offer help and how we support those in crisis. If we build connection, safely facilitate open dialogue that allows complete honesty without immediately turning to policy and procedure we could offer an alternative safe-space for people in crisis.
If you’ve made it this far thank you for reading, also if you feel like you need support The Samaritans can be reached on freephone 116123.