The New York Times recently ran an investigative piece titled Where the Despairing Log On, and Learn Ways to Die. It discussed a particular suicide forum, and the reactions I came across on Twitter expressed outrage that such a thing could exist. I had a different take on it, so I thought I’d write about it.
Note: My Straight Talk on Suicide page has info on crisis resources and safety planning tools.
The NYT article
The article was about a website “started in March 2018 by two shadowy figures calling themselves Marquis and Serge” that had a forum where there was open discussion about suicide methods. The site is named in the article, although I won’t name it here because I don’t think it adds anything to the discussion. The NYT identified 45 people who had posted on the site and subsequently taken their own lives, and they’d found over 500 goodbye threads in which people posted that they were going to end their lives.
The Times article said that a particular method was mentioned most commonly on the forum. While the article didn’t explicitly name it, they gave enough information that it was easy for me to identify it with a quick Google search (note: I didn’t spot the name when I read the article, but I later discovered that it is mentioned once). This seems to run contrary to reporting recommendations by organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which say that talk of specific methods increases the risk of suicide contagion.
According to the NYT, they have been able to track down the identities of “Marquis” and “Serge”, who they say also operate sites for incels. Not only that, they revealed these individuals’ actual names, ages, and places of residence in the article.
While Australia, Germany, and Italy have restricted access to the site, no legal action has been taken against it in the US. Apparently, the Australian government asked Google and Bing to stop showing the site in search results, but Google declined without a legal requirement being put in place. I’m 100% on Google’s side there. Governments should be coming up with appropriate laws to address their countries’ needs and then enforcing those laws; they should not be asking search engines to censor just to play along. That would be a very slippery slope.
Other news outlets have previously written about this site without naming it. For example, Vice published an article in 2020 that was more nuanced and less sensationalized.
The suicide forum
As I was in the process of writing this post, the website changed its forums from being publicly viewable to requiring sign-in. After the Times ran the article, “Marquis” posted a resignation letter on the site’s forum, saying he was handing control over the site to someone else and would no longer be involved. When I was last able to access it, there were four pages of responses from site users.
The responses were all supportive of this individual and expressed disappointment that he was being essentially forced to leave after the NYT doxxed him. People also expressed how helpful it had been for them to have a space where open conversations could happen without fear of censorship, and how much they had benefited from the mutual support, including support from “Marquis” himself.
Many expressed that those who are critical of the site only care about forcing people to stay alive but don’t actually care about doing anything to make their lives more livable. They also mentioned that it was hypocritical of the NYT to run an article that would inevitably drive new suicidal people to the site that they named.
The blame game
I suspect that there will always be people who consider themselves pro-choice in the sense that they believe that individuals have the right to decide when to end their own lives. Other people can think that’s abhorrent, but I don’t think that automatically makes people with that perspective evil.
I think it would be easy to fall into the trap of blaming the loss of a loved one on people who take such a perspective. In a CTV News article from my corner of the world, a woman had this to say about a suicide forum (not named in the article) that was used by her friend’s son who suicided: “Once they got their tentacles in [him], they indoctrinated him.” As comforting as that may feel to play the blame game, I have strong doubts that it happened that way.
What I saw on the forum mentioned in the NYT article was people who were pro-choice rather than pro-suicide. On other forums I’ve looked at over the years, it was the same thing. People weren’t encouraging anyone to kill themselves; they were open to whatever choices people made for themselves. It wasn’t the same kind of vibe as pro-ana (pro-anorexia) sites, where people actively encourage harmful behaviours.
I would think that social media platforms where trolls and bullies tell people to go kill themselves are more culpable if we’re talking about pushing people to feel suicidal.
What are people looking for?
The NYT article notes that this particular suicide forum site gets about quadruple the monthly page views of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline site. I don’t think that actually means all that much, as the Lifeline site isn’t something people are going to repeatedly and spending a lot of time on the way they would on a forum, and there’s really no reason to visit the Lifeline website at all when you can just Google the number. And as important as crisis lines are, they’re a stopgap; they don’t treat mental illness, and they don’t change the circumstances that make life feel unlivable.
I also don’t think everyone who’s thinking about suicide is looking for suicide prevention content. I’ve been there; I know crisis lines exist, but when I’m thinking really hard about dying, I’m not necessarily interested in looking for stuff online about living. Suicide contagion is a real thing, but by the time that people are actively seeking out information on methods, I think they’re already there—they’re already contaged, to make up a word.
As long as there are people thinking about ending their lives, there will be places where people congregate to access information on how to do so. These are not hard to find, and I’ve found some in the past. There are people who are in a lot of pain from physical conditions who live in countries where medical assistance in dying isn’t available, and they’re gathering online to talk about methods. Completely aside from the issue of mental health, as long as there are people in intractable pain, there will be people wanting to talk about how to die.
Trying to shut down sites where people feel like they can actually talk openly about suicide, even if that means talking about methods, seems futile, both in terms of shutting down the sites themselves and saving lives. When people have gotten to the point where they’re evaluating methods, more needs to be done than just making it a little more difficult to access that information. They will find that information if they’re determined, and I don’t think taking down a few websites is going to save anyone at that stage.
Prevention vs. intervention
By that stage, crisis intervention is needed to actively make things better for desperate people. Prevention needs to happen before it gets to that stage.
Prevention can and should involve restricting access to the means themselves, like guns. But trying to restrict access to information about means that are readily available? That seems like pissing in the wind.
While there are some things that can be done to make it harder to die, I truly think that prevention efforts need to focus on making it easier to live, including making mental illness treatment more available, accessible, acceptable, and effective. I don’t think the New York Times article does anything to promote that, and it just might make it harder for the people who have been accessing that website for support. As appealing as the blame game may be, I think finding ways to make living easier will do more to keep people alive than trying to shut down suicide forums.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.