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Is There A Facebook Suicide Effect?

Can a suicide announcement on Facebook inspire similar copycat deaths? As social media becomes more popular, the impact of those announcements will certainly become more widespread.

When police broke into Kevin McGee's Edinburgh apartment, they found that the 32-year old man had hanged himself. The police had been notified by several of McGee's friends after they noticed that the television producer had updated his Facebook status to read: "Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life." Police found his body three hours after he posted the message.

After 48-year old Lita Broadhurst threw herself from a fourth-floor balcony in the building where she had been living on Spain's southern coast, police found a suicide note on her Facebook homepage. Titled "Last Words" and addressed to her teenaged children, the note asked for her children's forgiveness and placed the blame on a former boyfriend against whom she was about to testify in court.

Aspiring model Paul Zolezzi was found hanging from the monkey bars in a Brooklyn playground. Hours earlier, the 30-year old Zolezzi updated his Facebook status saying that he was "born in San Francisco, became a shooting star over everywhere, and ended his life in Brooklyn... And couldn't have asked for more."

Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become the primary social networking service in the world with more than 800 million active users worldwide. Having become part of the lives of millions of people, it hardly seems surprising that it's also playing a role in death. To deal with the rising number of online suicide announcements as well as a recent rash of youth suicides linked to bullying, Facebook has launched a new suicide prevention tool to allow users to highlight content from a friend or acquaintance they believe to indicate suicidal thoughts or behaviours. Once flagged, the user who posted the content receives a direct link to a suicide counsellor for an online private chat session as well as a link to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Facebook also allows profiles of deceased users to be turned into "memorial pages" or removed completely at the request of family members.

Along with growing concern over Facebook suicides, there has been increased interest in the academic literature as well. In a recent article published in Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, a team of researchers at the University of Bern's Institute of Forensic Medicine examined a recent Facebook-announced death and whether online announcements can lead to copycat suicides.

The tendency of media reports of suicide to inspire copycat deaths has been known at least since 1774 when Wolfgang Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther. Featuring a passionate young poet who commits suicide in a romantic fashion over a lost love, the novel inspired a cultural movement called "Werther fever" with numerous young men imitating the hero any way that they could.

Unfortunately, this also led to an estimated 2,000 suicides as fans tried to imitate their hero's romantic death. Even into modern times, the rash of copycat deaths following well-known suicides is still known as the Werther Effect. Along with the rash of suicides following the deaths of celebrities such as Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe, and Yukiko Okada, copycat deaths have also been linked to high-profile suicides using unusual methods (such as self-immolation in parts of the Middle East) and even to specific locations associated with suicide (San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and Japan's Aokigahara forest are two prominent examples). In addition to media-driven copycat suicides, there has also been a rise in suicide-oriented Internet forums and websites offering advice on how to commit suicide as well as cases of "suicide groupies" urging forum users to commit suicide online.

But can a suicide announcement on Facebook inspire similar copycat deaths? The recent Institute of Forensic Medicine paper on Facebook suicide examined a case study involving the Facebook-announced suicide of a 28-year old male who posted his suicide intentions online in a status update. Although a concerned friend notified authorities, they were unable to prevent the poster from jumping to his death. Called in to investigate, the Institute ruled out foul play in the case but continued studying the potential impact of the suicide on other Facebook users.

While the authors acknowledge that there have been no reports of copycat deaths related to Facebook-announced suicides to date, they suggest that this may be due to Facebook's relatively recent launch and the small number of friends attached to the average Facebook account. Also, since Facebook friends often have a closer association with the user, this might act as a moderating influence on suicidal behaviour. As a result, these suicides tend not to have the same reach as media accounts of suicides in traditional print and television. While privacy settings of Facebook posts can be opened to allow stranger access, which could potentially allow for millions of readers, this does not appear to make a difference in terms of media exposure. Would the suicide of a more famous Facebook user with thousands of friends be more likely to produce a Werther Effect? While this hasn't happened so far, the likelihood of a high-profile Facebook-announced suicide seems inevitable as social media becomes more popular.

Perhaps more importantly, the immediacy of suicide notes on Facebook means that there is a greater chance for family, friends, and the Facebook network to intervene directly. In most cases of Facebook-announced suicide such as the ones described above, fellow Facebook users often try to help by contacting police or intervening. While their efforts aren't always successful, there seems no indication of copycat behaviour as a result. Facebook's new anti-suicide initiative may also a step in the right direction by putting potentially suicidal users in touch with mental health professionals. Still, critics warn that the new initiative may make potentially suicidal users less likely to admit suicidal feelings online and also stress that real-life contact is far more important than virtual intervention in preventing suicide.

As social media becomes more popular and online suicide announcements become more common, whether on Facebook or other social media networks, I believe the impact of those announcements will certainly become more widespread. How that impact will be felt, both by family and friends of the deceased as well as the wider social media community, remains to be seen.

Are you in crisis? Need help? In Canada, find links and numbers to 24-hour suicide crisis lines in your province here.

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