Paragraph 4 reads: "Sheridan Vivian, 18, didn't even need a dedicated website. The Forfar teenager used two social networking sites to express her suicidal thoughts, before killing herself with an overdose of anti-depressants. Last week, the body of Sheridan's mother, Moira, was found on a hillside near her home. Unable to cope with the knowledge her first-born had not felt able to confide in her, she had apparently taken a drugs overdose."
Dani Garavelli: When suicide is a net lossREAL LIVES
By DANI GARAVELLI
Charities say 27 people have died after logging on to suicide sites in the last six years
IT TOOK me just five minutes to get the advice I needed. Typing "I want to kill myself" into Google yielded a daunting 1,980,000 hits, but I didn't have to trawl through many of them to find what I was looking for. There it was, on the very first page: A Practical Guide to Suicide.
Professionally laid out, the table of contents included headings such as "contemplating death", "letting others assist" and "making it look like an accident". Then came a list of possible methods, from sleeping pills and carbon monoxide, to the more exotic "death by police". If I had felt life wasn't worth living, I would have been handed an exit route on a plate.
It would be irresponsible to print the website address, but anyone with a computer and the slightest desire to end it all would find it, with or without my help. And even if this particular website eluded them, there are plenty more. When it comes to online advice on how to kill themselves, the depressed are spoiled for choice.
Sheridan Vivian, 18, didn't even need a dedicated website. The Forfar teenager used two social networking sites to express her suicidal thoughts, before killing herself with an overdose of anti-depressants. Last week, the body of Sheridan's mother, Moira, was found on a hillside near her home. Unable to cope with the knowledge her first-born had not felt able to confide in her, she had apparently taken a drugs overdose.
Online, the teenager had no such reservations. On Bebo – where she called herself Suicidal Idol – she gave detailed accounts of her depression to virtual strangers/virtual friends. And on Xanga, she catalogued her self-destructive behaviour, which included self-harming and an eating disorder.
There is no evidence Sheridan was encouraged to take her own life by other users, but Simon Kelly almost certainly was. When the 18-year-old committed suicide in 2001, he acknowledged the help he got from websites in his online suicide note.
Last week, the suicide charity Papyrus said it believed 27 people – including a 13-year-old girl – had died after logging on to suicide sites and chatrooms in the last six years.
It has launched a campaign for an amendment to the 1961 Suicide Act, making it illegal to publish such material online. A similar law, introduced in Australia, has seen some sites shut down.
The British Government long ago decided existing legislation – which makes it illegal to aid, abet, counsel, procure or incite someone to suicide – was sufficient to deal with the problem. Yet, no one using the internet has ever been successfully prosecuted under this law – and the websites continue to flourish.
Even when an undercover reporter posing as a bullied teenager received messages offering advice on how to end it all, a conviction could not be secured, and you can see the problem. It is hard enough to identify and trace those who nurture suicidal tendencies; harder still to decide what level of encouragement constitutes incitement. (Presumably supplying the weight/height ratio for a successful hanging would count, but what about merely wishing someone good luck?)
Even if these obstacles are overcome, it may not be in the public interest to bring a prosecution. After all, those who promote suicide are likely to have toyed with the idea of taking their own lives, and the prospect of a high-profile court case might be the very thing that pushes them over the edge.
This is effectively what happened to Louis Gillies, a philosophy graduate found hanged in his Glasgow flat in 2003, just hours before he was due in court accused of aiding and abetting Michael Gooden, a man he "met" on the alt.suicide.holidays (ASH) website, to take his own life. Having discussed their mutual desire to commit suicide, the pair made a pact and travelled to Beachy Head, but Gillies changed his mind at the last minute after a call from a friend and Gooden stepped off the cliff alone. Gillies was arrested and charged after he contacted the website to tell users Gooden had finally "caught the bus".
In the days following Gillies' own death, I spent hours looking at the ASH site and discovered an alternative world where vulnerable people fed off each other's depression and suicide was normalised. The merits of death by hanging as opposed to death by drugs overdose were discussed in the same matter-of-fact tone one might use to compare Tesco with Sainsbury's, and news that a fellow user had taken his/her own life was greeted with an enthusiasm traditionally associated with passing an exam.
According to psychiatrists, 90% of those who express suicidal thoughts suffer from treatable conditions from which they have every chance of recovering. Yet the philosophy of ASH was that everyone has the right to take t
heir own life – so no one tried to talk anyone out of committing suicide and no one contacted the authorities. Instead, they glorified the act, portraying it as an exhilarating experience.
Five years on, ASH is defunct, but you can still read its users' words of wisdom on other websites. All this despite the fact that bigger search engines such as Google and Yahoo have promised to self-regulate, ensuring support sites such as the Samaritans are at the top of the list when certain words are keyed in.
Cracking down on suicide websites is difficult, as many are based in the US, making them difficult to monitor and control. As a result, I suspect our Government will continue to wash its hands of the problem. In doing so, it will place distressed teenagers at the mercy of those suicide evangelists who see taking your own life not merely as a viable option, but as something to aspire to.
The full article contains 995 words and appears in Scotland On Sunday newspaper.
Last Updated: 20 January 2008 12:43 AM