We need to talk about suicide, but it's not a social-media conversation
What could have driven Erin Gallagher to take her own life? Asking this question in the aftermath of a suicide is almost always futile – the only person really qualified to answer it is, tragically, dead. But in the Facebook tribute pages that appeared online following the 13-year-old’s death at her Donegal home 10 days ago, there is little hesitation.
“Bullied by cowards, by heartless monsters,” the profile on one reads.
“RIP Erin in bully FREE heaven,” writes a commenter on another.
“There’s no bullies in heaven, sleep tight beautiful,” says another.
In many of the posts on the six different pages dedicated to her memory, her alleged tormentors are characterised as “evil”, “murderers”, “scum” and “terrorists”. Some of the media coverage of her death has also drawn a direct correlation between claims that Erin had been the victim of relentless “cyberbullying”, and her suicide.
Online bullying can do serious psychological damage. It may be a factor in suicides, and in some cases it may be a key cause.
But if all other evidence has died with the person, the media can fall into the trap of overinterpreting the role of online conversations. Because the taunts often take the form of a public message, they may be the only insight we have into a person’s mental state at the time of their death.
We rarely have a complete picture of the factors that lead to a suicide.
But there are some things we do know. It can be dangerous to oversimplify the causes. Tackling the stigma surrounding the issue is good; indulging in the blame game is not, especially when those on the receiving end are just children themselves.
Talking about suicide does not lead to more deaths, but framing it in melodramatic terms can. And romanticising suicide – any suicide, but especially one involving a young person – is dangerous.
The internet has a tendency to act as a bellows for collective outrage – instead of allowing that anger to dissipate quietly away, it fans it into a frenzy of finger-pointing and anguish. It can reduce the complexities of human suffering to a series of status updates and “likes”, distorting the fact that suicide is rarely a straightforward case of cause and effect.
Erin Gallagher’s death was the second by an Irish teenager to make headlines in the space of two months. In September, Ciara Pugsley, a 15-year-old from Dromahair in Co Leitrim, also took her own life. Like Erin, she had been bullied anonymously on the Ask.fmwebsite.
In another case that was reported around the world, 15-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd killed herself, five weeks after posting a nine-minute video on YouTube detailing the bullying and blackmail she had suffered at the hands of a man she met on the internet, and a group of girls at her school.