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The New York Times’ Take on a Suicide Forum – My Thoughts

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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 that 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.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

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.

51 thoughts on “The New York Times’ Take on a Suicide Forum – My Thoughts”

  1. When suicide is a reasonable choice and when it’s not is a slippery and highly subjective topic. Religion itself in a perverse way promotes suicide by positing that after death one goes to a “better place” — when if fact we don’t know that. However, we don’t talk about banning religion, do we? (With the erosion of respect for the Constitution led by Alt Right extremists, I can see where banning religion might be in our future, but not now.)

    I was unaware of this site until I saw your article, and see the value in what they were doing. If they had included a hot link to a crisis center, they might have avoided some of the flak.

      1. I posed this question some time ago, and have never seen a satisfactory response. We know that suicide in traditional Japanese culture is honorable. We respect the story of mass suicide that is the tale of Masada. How do we draw a line between what’s honorable and what’s insane? Who gets to draw that line?

        1. I think something like that will always be entirely subjective, influenced by culture, religion, socialization, personal beliefs, personal experiences, etc., so I don’t see how there could ever be any objective line.

      2. The only reason i am on that website is because i am harmed by the SSRI paxil. I took it for work stress 5 months. And now severely disabled. Everyday in horrific pain, nervepains, neuropathy, burning skin and more. I can’t barely walk anymore. I took the last pill 12 months ago.
        If i look for help they say it’s in your head, anxiety, These ‘Psych meds’ are dangerous and the harm it inflicts on people is ignored. I never had mental health problems i lived a wonderfull life before. Now it’s torture and surviving hour to hour.

        I lost my job and my marriage and i’m houseband 24/7 for over a year now from 5 months use of these shitty paxil pills. Of course no one believes me. The only people who believes you are on these websites. It opened my eyes that i’m not crazy when i noticed how many people are on that website that are harmed by Pharmaceutical medicines too. Mostly SSRI, Antibiotic (fluoroquinolone) and Finasteride.

        It’s a big shame. First we are almost killed by these meds what off cours is denied. Then we talk about it and about the struggles on a webforum. And this ‘has to be shut down’ too.

        Mind your own business. People are on these forums for a reason. it’s their own choice. Maybe they have to do a ID check 18+ or something. Minors don’t belong on such websites i agree!!.

        But why should i live this life, severely disabled by a drug, in pain, ignored, trowed every mental health diagnosis at me. Tell me. It’s a shame

        There are hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits against GSK the manufacturer but of course it’s all in my head, and i’m mentally ill and i need help and more pills. Sure

        Normally we can vent like this on that forum.

          1. excuse me for my tone.

            i see you are not pro or con but just discussing.
            I agree with your points

            (sorry, just angry because of my condition caused by ssri, not to you 😉 )

            1. That’s totally okay. People who haven’t experienced with you have really should mind their own business and not tell you how you should be feeling about what you’ve been through.

  2. Ashley, you truly have a gift for making hard topics accessible. This line just rang so true to me, “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.” It seems to apply not just to suicide prevention but to life for everyone on this planet. Beautiful!

  3. There certainly needs to be more support in preventing.
    I couldn’t get any help from mum’s GP the 2 years prior to her attempted suicide, when I was concerned about her mental health.
    When I was concerned about mum’s mental health, I like to add that I never thought mum was suicidal. But I was concerned and in the year before her suicide, very concerned about mum’s mental health stability. Help didn’t arrive until mum came out with overdose on ward, 2 days after I found her and called 999.

      1. Yes. I reckon if I could have got the help before, it could have prevented that. Mum was so desperate in that final year before she OD in wanting to move. But with mum already in suitable housing, her chance of possibly getting somewhere else was the same as me. So hence, when mum had took her OD and mum needing the extra support, I suggested her moving in with me and so get her name on with me with council housing, while me and her support she then got, supporting her best we could. But then as you know, her mental health became worse, that she became sectioned and things progressed worse from there.

  4. It’s sad that forums like this exist, but it probably gives the readers a sense of belonging. Feeling like you’re all alone is a huge factor when in comes to depression and suicide. I’m glad to hear that it’s not like the eating disorder forums that promote harmful behaviors, but a place to seriously discuss the options you have.

  5. Johnzelle Anderson

    I’ve heard of these forums before but never gave it much more thought beyond knowing they exist. This article was very informative and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing

  6. If people had somewhere more supportive to log on, they probably would. This site kind of seems to fall under the peer support you were talking about, doesn’t it? It hadn’t occurred to us to visit a site like this. But it’s like any other planning: someone else has probably thought about almost everything before you, so you can not reinvent wheel

    1. From the comments I was reading on the founder’s resignation letter, it sounds like there actually is a strong element of peer support there. I think the downside of strict moderation on many forums is that it leaves some people feeling like they don’t have more supportive places to go.

      And I agree, you can’t reinvent the wheel, and you can’t disappear information that’s already out there in the world. It’s not as though people are coming up with brand new things.

  7. I find something like that heartbreaking. I would personally never log into something like because I know myself and that it would mess with my mind very badly. I wish people didn’t feel that way.

  8. I think your point about making it easier to live vs. making it hard to die is a very good point.
    I also think the biggest challenge with any forum is that no matter the stated rules and moderation, the nature of the internet, and internet forums, is that it is so easy for the forums to devolve out of hand. I’m sympathetic to the lack of safe spaces to be able to talk openly about suicidal ideation for fear of mandatory reporting and criminal actions, but a forum feels more like a band-aid than a real fix. And I can also see how forums can be more harmful or toxic.

  9. I didn’t know a site like this existed. I do agree with you that taking the site down won’t prevent suicide. The internet is full of sites that give to people who are looking for it. I can understand how the site can help people safe and not alone but the more you talk about suicide online, the more likely you are to not seek help

  10. David Foster Wallace

    The NYT article looks like yet-another-witch-hunt to me. Angry mob wants to execute someone without addressing the problem itself. Creation of that site didn’t change sucude rates a bit, and closing it won’t eiter.
    I can not say i am surprise in the slightest. Mainstream media has alway been like this.

    1. What surprises me is that the NYT named the site and gave strong hints at a commonly discussed method. Even if they wanted to demonize the existence of such a thing, they had to realize that their article would drive more people to the site.

      1. David Foster Wallace

        I’m sure they do realize, but just don’t care. Well written article would not go viral, and this one did. It’s business.
        I personaliy have found out about the forum because all the media fuss, and had to register because it went private.This article is linked on the forum, so I guess NYT brought me here too, unintentionally.

  11. Hello, I am an active user of the forum and I think your article is quite interesting, and what the NYT did, far from being helpful, shows how society demonizes suicidal ideations or prefers to hide them, the value of life is something relative and it goes hand in hand with the person who carries it, the problem is when we make people feel that their suicidal ideations are something monstrous that they should hide, because let’s be frank, the number of people who are open to these issues and who are close of the individual are counted with the fingers of the hands, for this reason the site exists, to offer the options that the user has.

  12. This was a really great post. I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that prevention methods are a crucial part of suicide awareness. It’s really shitty that life saving treatment can be so inaccessible for so many people.

    Beyond that, I think you make another super valid point. Suicide can be scary and shitty to talk about. Especially if there is a loved one in your life who is or has been suicidal. But I think part of the reason why people feel so scared to talk about their suicidal thoughts is fear of judgment they would receive from the people they tell. When it comes to suicide I am pro-life and I never want to encourage someone to take their life. But I can recognize how people in a suicidal position may need to have a safe space that they can go to without feeling judged.

    Great job with this Ashley!

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