Can Reddit Save Lives?
In August, a suicidal man with the username Diefex logged into the social news site Reddit.com and posted a comment asking for “just one good reason to live.”
“DO IT FAGGOT,” said one comment on the post.
“You’re a history major; I’d commit suicide too,” said another, who had determined Diefex’s college major from one of his other comments on the site.
Others left more helpful advice, reminding Diefex about the earthly pleasures of good food, orgasms and mountains.
Two hours after his post, Diefex, a 24-year-old college student named Robert Duncan, hanged himself in his Philadelphia apartment.
Duncan was one of more than 4,000 people who have turned to the sprawling social network Reddit.com for help when they were contemplating suicide. The site has 200,000-plus forums dedicated to everything from politics to porn, and several of the forums, like Suicidewatch, allow commenters to vent their troubles and await responses from other so-called “Redditors.”
The recent death of New Jersey college student Tyler Clementi, whose dorm-room trysts were Web cast by his roommate, raised questions about the Internet's role in prompting suicide. In Duncan's case, the taunts from others on the site may have pushed him over the edge – a thought that still haunts his father.
"It certainly didn’t help,” Richard Duncan said. “It probably put him over. But we’ll never know for sure.” A few days after his son’s death, he posted a message on Reddit begging its users to be more sensitive to people who seem suicidal.
Duncan doesn’t blame Reddit. But Diefex’s death does raise chilling questions about online forums, where just one post can be the only warning of a brewing suicide attempt, but where the only available counselors are anonymous Web surfers.
And while some researchers say social networks can be effective in preventing self-harm, others fear Reddit and similar sites are the wrong outlet for the desperate cries of the distraught.
Suicidal thoughts are an extreme side -effect of crippling depression, explains Dr. Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
When Kaplin meets grieving families desperate for an explanation for a loved one’s suicide, he tells them to picture this scenario:
“Imagine you were stricken with boils all over your body, you were in the hospital, you were alone, you were in terrible pain, and life had lost all of its fun.”
Depression takes people to that place emotionally. “It robs you of the ability to see where you are in reality, or that it was ever not like it is now,” he said.
If a brain without depression provides an accurate read-out of life’s events, a depressed brain has a “thermostat that is stuck,” Kaplin said.
At the root of depression is a short-circuit in the brain’s ability to absorb serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate mood and impulsiveness.
“When serotonin is low, people tend to make riskier decisions,” said Dr. John Mann, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “If someone is feeling depressed and having suicidal thoughts, it’s hard to that person not to act on it.”
Genetic differences make suicidal tendencies more likely by reducing the amount of serotonin the brain produces. In 2004, scientists at Duke University discovered that a variant in just one enzyme can cause a brain to produce 50 to 70 percent less serotonin than normal.
Countless environmental factors can also trigger a suicide. In Duncan’s case, a recent breakup and an increasingly bleak economy made him anxious about his post-college future. For Tyler Clementi, it was being unwittingly outed on the Internet.
Even when genetic and environmental factors are stacked against them, suicidal people usually feel some degree of ambivalence about wanting to die, which means there’s a crucial window when counselors and friends can intervene.
“Part of them wants to die, but part wants to live,” said Lisa Firestone, head of the Glendon Association, a suicide-prevention nonprofit. The challenge, then, for doctors, friends and even Redditors is, “How do you connect with that part of them that wants to live?”
It’s a difficult task because people who have suicidal thoughts often feel guilty and reluctant to come forward. That’s because even the most severely depressed recognize, on some level, that one person’s death affects everyone else they know, Kaplin explained, and killing oneself is equivalent to tearing the fabric of society.
“People are very ashamed by it, and they will reach out in anonymous ways,” he said.
Sometimes, the anonymous way might be the only way they reach out. A 30-year-old Finnish man, whose Reddit monicker is Restlesssoul, had already been thinking about killing himself for several days when he posted one final, desperate plea online:
“I’m trapped, no good options left.”
In a two-paragraph post, he explained that he’s stuck in a loveless marriage. “This all hurts like hell, the pills don't help,” his post continued. “I'm really contemplating suicide.”
“Which do you think will hurt your children more?” asked user G3R4 in response. “You committing suicide, or you divorcing your wife?”
“Talk to someone -– even if the start is just a suicide hotline,” said another.
Restlesssoul thanked the Reddit community in a later post he wrote from a hospital, where he was being treated after he talked to a psychiatrist about his suicidal thoughts. In an interview, he said the Reddit community encouraged him to make the initial doctors’ visit.
“I'm a faceless nobody on Reddit,” he said. “I can say things that are true but that I'm too ashamed to say out loud. [The people on Reddit] managed to put things in a different perspective.”
Reddit isn’t the only social network with sections dedicated to suicide prevention. Sex columnist Dan Savage started a YouTube channel called the “It Gets Better Project,” which targets gay teens with encouraging video messages and has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
In June, a Canadian woman started a Facebook page called “Please don’t jump.” It gained 20,000 members overnight.
“So many people go on and they say, ‘I need help,'” said Katelyn Roberts, an administrator with the Facebook group. “Within a few hours, they have at least five people commenting on their status.”
She says the site can, in some ways, be more accessible than a professional would because the commenters on Facebook aren’t social workers or people who “have to be there.” Instead, they appear to be there because they genuinely want to.
But some psychiatrists warn that it’s dangerous for novices to do the work of professionals when lives are on the line.
"It's like getting onto Facebook and asking someone if they can fix your car engine," said John Mann, the Columbia University professor. "The best thing someone can do is to tell you to take it to a mechanic."
Suicidewatch moderator Aenea, who also asked that only her Reddit name be used, said the forum does try to be the link between users and the “mechanics,” or psychiatrists. She said the six Suicidewatch volunteer moderators perform research for users and send them messages with the phone numbers of psychiatrists or free clinics in their areas. The moderators also patrol the site’s comments once an hour, deleting anything offensive.
“Of course it’s better to be dealing with a qualified mental health professional,” Aenea said. “But we want people to talk to us rather than not talk to anyone.”
But although it may be good to get suicidal people talking, it's also important to make sure they're hearing the right things in return - and that's where the Internet can pose a problem.
“In general, people aren’t assholes to each others’ faces,” Aenea said. “But someone saying ‘Do it, do it, do it!’ –- that’s more common online.”
Granted, in the Suicidewatch section of Reddit, it’s rare to find commenters like those who encouraged Duncan to kill himself. Duncan posted his request in a different Reddit forum, “Ask Reddit,” where moderator policing isn’t as strict and where the comments can be much more vile.
And beyond the deplorable comments of so-called “trolls” lies another problem with the online medium: It’s hard to tell exactly what someone means or if they’re being sincere. You can’t hear a desperate sob or see a tear-streaked face on the Internet, and the lack of person-to-person interaction creates gaping holes in the online suicide safety net.
Like many suicide victims, Duncan left his own version of a goodbye note - in a three-word Facebook status message: “See you Philly.”
Giving it the most literal reading possible, a friend of his responded, “Where are you going?”
“I wouldn’t have thought anything of it,” Duncan’s father said. “On the Internet, you can’t hear people's voices.”
However, that might be the very reason people seek help there in the first place.
To be sure, on social networks people can misconstrue or ignore what are essentially suicide notes, and “trolls” can urge suicidal people to give in to a dark and final temptation.
But hotlines and therapists come with their own unfortunate drawbacks. People usually don't think of themselves as mentally ill, even if they are. If you're suicidal, picking up the phone to call a suicide hotline requires a massive cognitive leap - one that takes you from denying suicidal tendencies (as suicidal people often do) to admitting that you're one of the "people who need help."
But Suicidewatch and other networks find people where they already are - debating in forums, watching YouTube videos or perusing friends' Facebook profiles. Those anonymous communities are often where people feel safest confessing. And when it comes to depression, hearing those confessions can mean the difference between life and death.