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Messages from the Edge: Suicide Notes on Social Media

Jan 25 2016
How Facebook turns the left-behind into horrified witnesses.

They say she drove to a small, isolated chapel in the woods, shared her suicide note on Facebook, and then carried out a decision that was both final and fatal.

Not too long after my friend posted the note, I watched in horror as the events unfolded. Each update came in real time on my newsfeed: the timid, then panicked inquiries about her welfare, the frantic attempts to pinpoint her location for the authorities, and then finally, the death knell blow: “She has been found. She has taken her life.”

Over 40,000 Americans and more than a million people worldwide die by suicide each year. It’s the country’s tenth leading cause of death overall and one of the most common causes of death among young people and people in middle age.

As social media becomes a mainstay in our day-to-day lives, recent research probes the relationship between our online activity and suicide. Studies indicate that social media can intensify depression and suicidal behavior, especially among girls. The more we submerge ourselves in the faux-reality of carefully crafted posts and curated photographs, the greater our risk of depression and suicide due to social isolation and social comparison. Researchers have also discovered evidence of the Werther effect—copycat suicides—due to stories shared over Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.

But research on social media and suicide remains in its infancy, and far too little (if any) has examined the impact of public, interactive suicide notes on bereaved family and friends—on those like me who powerlessly “witnessed” the suicide of a friend online.

Before social media, the unfortunate person who discovered the body typically found the suicide note. Only after the fact, when intervention was no longer a possibility, would a single person or small group become privy to the victim’s final words.

But suicide notes posted online are messages from the edge, live and interactive. Family and friends can read those last words while their loved one is still alive, or even at the moment they’re taking their lives. They’re able to plead, cajole, and beg—often to no avail. The immediacy of online suicide notes elevates witnesses’ psychological distress because of the illusion they can thwart their loved one’s plan.

Witnesses ricochet through disbelief (Is this a joke? Just a quote from a macabre novel?); shock (This can’t be happening.); guilt (What could I have done differently? What was my part in this death?); and grief (What light has gone from this world!). There is no guidebook to help us navigate these new waters.

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