We need to talk about suicide, but it's not a social-media conversation

Wed, Nov 7, 2012, 00:00

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.

So far, the discussion has focused on the part social media played in their deaths. There has been very little thought given to its role in the aftermath – but it is in the wake of high-profile suicides like these that social media is arguably at its most potent.

In addition to the six Facebook pages dedicated to the memory of Erin Gallagher, there are six for Ciara Pugsley and more than 100 dedicated to Amanda Todd, with 1.5 million likes on one alone.

It’s understandable that family and friends want to commemorate a lost loved one in the forum where so much of their life was played out. The motives behind creating a Facebook tribute page are usually good, but they can have serious negative consequences.

I don’t think this kind of online eulogising of teenagers who took their own lives – and demonising of their alleged tormentors – is healthy.

For a start, there are obvious implications for the physical and mental wellbeing of those accused of bullying.

Less apparent, but no less serious, is the risk of what the Samaritans calls “social contagion” – the phenomenon whereby one highly visible suicide is seen to “give permission” to others, sometimes leading to what it terms a “clustering effect”. To combat this, the organisation has issued guidelines for the media in reporting on suicides. These include: avoid simplistic explanations; don’t give details; and don’t overstate the “positive” results of a suicide.

Journalists who write about this issue are aware they walk a tightrope. On the one hand, sensitive coverage that follows these guidelines can help tackle the stigma that surrounds suicide. On the other, a few ill-chosen words or details can have a profoundly negative impact on vulnerable readers.

But unfortunately, no such guidelines apply online. A study carried out in 2006 in New Zealand, which has the second-highest youth suicide rate in the OECD, found that Bebo and text messaging contributed to a spate of eight teen suicides in an 18-month period.

It would be wrong to imply that an otherwise healthy teenager might be compelled to suicide just by reading about it. But there is evidence to suggest that, against a backdrop of other issues, the act itself can sometimes be highly impulsive.

In the 1990s, researchers in Houston, Texas asked 153 people, aged 13 to 34, who had survived a serious suicide attempt, to estimate the amount of time between making the decision that they wanted to die, and actually attempting it. Seventy per cent of the time, the gap was less than an hour. In one in four cases, it was barely five minutes.

There is an urgent need for more openness about teenage suicide – but it needs to happen in a context that doesn’t glamorise it, or suggest that a suicide is necessarily the outcome of bullying.

It really needs to happen away from the emotionally-charged atmosphere of Facebook, where susceptible teenagers can be influenced by one another.

Soft soap treatment for Children’s Referendum

Just when you thought Irish referendum campaigns couldn’t get any more Pythonesque, a minor surge in late opposition to the Children’s Referendum has come from an unlikely quarter: Albert Square.

Hats off to the scriptwriters at EastEnders for keeping yes campaigners on their toes, with a plot about the battle between a young mother and a social worker over the forced adoption of her child. According to Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy, the soap’s “Lola” plotline has been exercising voters, and he has been asked about it quite a few times. No doubt it beats some of the other stuff he gets asked on the doorstep.

The soap even made it on to the front page of the Catholic newspaper Alive, as a warning about what can happen when the State is given too much power. What – we’ll all be forced to sit en masse and watch EastEnders?

The Enid Blyton guide to parenting

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books are being revived for television by a British company. I suspect it’s not just the children who are behind this renewed interest in midnight feasts with lashings of ginger beer.

We could learn a thing or two from the Enid Blyton guide to parenting. Yes, yes – I know, she was the mother from hell. And yes, the children in her books are undeniably awful: they are rude to foreigners, and insulting about gypsies. (I’d still take tomboy George as a role model for my daughter any day over Barbie, though.)

But what I love is that the books hark back to a time when parents weren’t scheduling every free second of their children’s lives with violin tuition. On the contrary, they barely seemed to notice where their children were from one end of the summer to the other.

As a parent, part of the job is to give your children the tools to cope with adversity – even toughening them up so they can cope with the disappointments life throws at them. I’m not sure the modern compulsion to wrap our children in cotton wool does them any favours – especially some of the practices espoused by schools, such as giving everyone a medal at sports day, so no one feels inadequate, or not allowing the distribution of party invitations unless the whole class is invited. Is this really the best preparation for life? By gum, I know Enid wouldn’t have had any of it.

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