The thrill of social media is often the possibility of surprise. It's fun to log on and see which viral videos, political rants, news stories, and baby pictures your friends and family have shared.
What we don't expect is to see someone die. Watching a suicide attempt (or murder) in real time is not part of the bargain we've made to stay connected with the world. And yet it happens. Earlier this week, a Thai man killed his infant daughter and himself on Facebook Live. The video appeared on both Facebook and YouTube before being taken down by the companies.
While such incidents are rare, even news coverage of them can make us feel sad or angry. For some people, learning explicit details about these tragedies may lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior. We know this from years of research, but the phenomenon of broadcasting suicide via live video is so new that even experts in suicide prevention are grappling with how to understand its emotional impact.
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"This whole medium has not existed long enough for us to have a good understanding of how it might be different from what you might see in the newspaper or on a TV show," says Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention nonprofit.
"There’s nothing more lurid than seeing something like this in real time."
He suspects, however, that witnessing a suicide on social media can be as bad or even worse for our emotional health as encountering graphic details in the media: "There’s nothing more lurid than seeing something like this in real time."
That violence could be overwhelming and deeply disturbing, particularly for people who are at risk for or already experience anxiety or depression, or are struggling with their own suicidal impulses.
To ease that anguish, Schwartz recommends first walking away from its source. "If you were eating or drinking something that tasted [bad], you would stop," he says. "This is the same thing — we can’t control what [we see] online, but you can spit it out."
Once you've got some distance, find ways to make that space bigger. Try talking to a supportive, trusted friend about the emotions you felt after watching or hearing about the suicide. Sit down with a TV show that makes you laugh, take a walk or run, or do something else that gives you joy. Essentially, says Schwartz, find ways to distract yourself.
Taking action is important too. If you see a suicide attempt take place on a social media platform, report it to the company. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat all provide users a way to report suicidal behavior or content, and Schwartz says following those guidelines can make someone feel less helpless. (If someone appears to be in immediate danger, you can also contact local law enforcement or 911.) Finally, he urges people experiencing relentless despair or suicidal thoughts to discuss their feelings, seek profession help, or call or text a hotline.
Making space for stillness and calm is valuable and necessary. It's okay to stop rushing for a moment and take in your surroundings.
— Crisis Text Line (@CrisisTextLine) April 24, 2017
Testing how suicide on live video affects people would be unethical, which is partly why we don't know its consequences for our emotional health. Yet Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University who specializes in suicide prevention research, believes the existing evidence on the "contagion effect" of suicide is robust enough to suggest that it could harm certain people.
Most of these studies look retrospectively at whether the suicide rate spikes after a high-profile incident and show there appears to be some association between media reports and increases in the suicide rate. Those most affected are likely to be emotionally vulnerable people who can identify with the person who died. So geography, gender, age, and other factors can make a difference in how someone perceives the death, whether it relates to their own life, and how it could influence their frame of mind.
Gould is less worried that we lack research on the impact of seeing a suicide on live video and more concerned that the norms around suicide may be changing to the point where people see it as a widespread, acceptable outcome.
Talking about suicide requires a careful balance of acknowledging how and why it happens while avoiding making it seem inevitable, glamorous, or the best solution to ending one's pain. That's why she and other prevention experts were so alarmed by the vivid portrayal of suicide in the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, in which the main female character meticulously plans her suicide almost as a means of revenge against those who bullied and assaulted her.
"It’s ok to talk about your fears or concerns about what you’ve seen or felt."
Gould, among other advocates, want to focus more time on encouraging healthy conversations about self-harm, including coping strategies, how to get help, and spreading the knowledge that many people who have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide can still lead happy lives.
These are all things to focus on the next time a suicide airs live on social media. And don't be afraid to express what it meant to encounter that imagery or reporting — or to listen to someone else trying to make sense of that.
"It’s O.K. to talk about your fears or concerns about what you’ve seen or felt," says Schwartz.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.