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.
For me, disbelief and shock passed quickly, but guilt and grief cycled on days and weeks later. Even today, I wonder what signs I may have missed. Would it have made a difference if I had paid closer attention? Others noticed something awry with my friend, but failed to intervene out of fear of seeming nosy, pushy, or judgmental.
Mostly, though, I worry about how I portray my life online. I don’t want to stoke the embers of depression in those I love by presenting an edited version of my life, free of flaws and failures. Life is hard for everyone. Who has not had their heart broken? Who has not been lonely? Who has not felt, at one time or another, like a colossal failure? Who has not experienced near-overwhelming darkness? We all have, and we ought to be honest about it.
Part of me knows my guilt is misplaced. It is difficult to judge when a person is at the edge and when intervention is necessary, especially online. Yet, I still feel it, and I’m channeling those emotions into a commitment to pay closer attention to my friends, face-to-face and online.
There will never be a formula to help us respond to the tragic reality of suicide. Instead, we begin by acknowledging that depression is a serious, insidious mental illness. When we fail to adequately understand the nature of depression, we’re more likely to overlook warning signs in our friends and family and less likely to take suicide threats seriously.
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of … any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing,” wrote David Foster Wallace, who himself knew the weight of depression well and ended up taking his own life. “The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.” The fear of the flames exceeds the fear of falling. The terror of endlessly bearing the weight of depression exceeds the terror of dying.
Depression isn’t simply “unhappiness” or the end result of yet another bad day; depression twists, distorts, and confuses our thinking to the point we may not even seem to be the same person. Depression lies to us. It tells us there is no hope, there is no way out, the sun will never come out, and our loved ones are better off without us. And so we slowly slide down to a desperate place.
Once upon a time, the poet Robert Frost sent a message that drew me away from the edge. In his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he poignantly says:
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year. …
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Out there on the edge, I felt understood, though Frost had long since passed away. There is a place where death seems less like our great enemy and more like a welcoming friend. But as welcoming as death seemed at that time, Frost reminded me, I had promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.
We, the living, have an obligation to send messages to our loved ones on the edge. We need to recognize symptoms of severe depression among our loved ones and to vigorously, continuously, speak truth over and against these lies. There is hope. There is a way out. The sun will shine again. You are needed. You are loved. We tell them how we know—how we, too, were once almost swallowed up whole by dark despair until the light finally broke in.