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Tuesday, October 11, 2005 

Suicide, the media and control freakery.

After yesterday's sensationalist account of the same story in the Mirror, the Guardian has published a rather less outraged report, but one which still contains some factual errors:

Internet companies are being urged by the Home Office to make so-called suicide websites and chatrooms more difficult to access. The move comes after two strangers forged Britain's first internet suicide pact, dying side by side two days after making contact for the first time on a chatroom dedicated to discussions about suicide.

Following a spate of online suicide pacts in Japan and elsewhere, psychiatrists are warning that Britain may be about to witness a disturbing new trend, with young people in particular using the chatrooms to make contact with other depressed individuals.

Ministers have considered outlawing sites which appears to encourage suicide, but were warned that new legislation could also criminalise fictional depictions of suicide and hinder academics and counsellors writing about the subject.

Talks are taking place with a number of service providers, including Yahoo! and AOL, and search engine companies, in an attempt to reprioritise the results that are thrown up during a trawl on the internet. "When somebody keys in 'suicide' and 'UK', we would like them to be offered a link to the Samaritans long before they find a website showing them what they can do with a car exhaust and a hosepipe," one official said.

Yep, more New Labour control freakery. Not content with planning to ban "violent" pornography, they've considered outlawing sites which "appear" to encourage suicide. Instead they are now consulting ISPs to block access, and search engines to change results that show up. No doubt this would be similar to the system that is used to block access to known child pornography. However, I decided to test out the officials hypothesis that they like to see a link to the Samaritans before a site with access to methods. If you search google.co.uk and enter "Suicide and UK" exactly as the article suggests, you get this.
The fifth link is the Samaritans. I went through the first six pages, and there are no links to any method sites. Of course, if you were actually looking for ways to kill yourself, you'd be more likely to type in "ways to kill yourself" or "suicide methods" than that. Nevertheless, the official really should look into these things properly before commenting.

The drive for internet reform was given extra impetus by the deaths of Christopher Aston and Maria Williams, who killed themselves in a shopping centre car park near the millennium Dome in south-east London. They used a method which is highly unusual in the UK, but which is frequently discussed in suicide chatrooms.

Mr Aston, 25, was the elder of the two sons of a professional couple, and grew up in the street next to Penny Lane in Liverpool. A PhD student at the University of Manchester, he was researching the use of computers to analyse and categorise biological material.

Ms Williams, 42, was a former private detective and convicted fraudster who often used the name Marie Sanchez, and who lived alone on the sixth floor of a tower block on a council estate in Deptford, south-east London. All they had in common, before making contact on one of the most frequently-visited suicide chatrooms, was their interest in computers, and their history of depression.

The inquest into their deaths last month heard that Mr Aston was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and dyslexia as a child, with the result that he often felt isolated. "He had very good friends who cared for him but sometimes his perception of that was the opposite," his mother, Frances, told the hearing. He drank a bottle of medicine at the age of 12 and took an overdose four years ago.

Ms Williams was an outgoing and resilient woman who descended unexpectedly into mental illness following her fourth short spell in prison 10 years ago, relatives say.

She had fallen in love with a prison officer and, following the failure of that relationship, drove to Wigan, the officer's home town, where she attempted to commit suicide in a church.

A family member who did not wish to be identified said she had made two failed attempts to kill herself. "She said straight away that she was going to do it again."

Mr Aston and Ms Williams were found together in her red BMW, parked outside a branch of the TK Maxx store, a place which her family say she liked because she had used "dodgy credit cards" to shop there. She was sitting behind the driver's wheel, dressed in a white shroud with a friend's name and telephone number scrawled on her right shoulder. Mr Aston was curled in a foetal position on the back seat. Beside him was a scanner, which could have been used to listen for the radio messages of approaching police patrols or ambulance crews.

They had had very little contact before their deaths, police told the inquest, but an examination of their computers showed how they had made contact, and revealed that both had been reading internet suicide websites.

The Guardian is not identifying the method which Mr Aston and Ms Williams used to take their lives, nor is it identifying the chatroom on which, relatives say, they first met.

So, two grown people, both who had a history of mental illness met and decided to end their lives together. We're not talking about teenagers who had just split with their boyfriend/girlfriend and did something incredibly silly. Both had attempted suicide in the past. Both would have been known to local mental health teams and psychiatrists. Both had no doubt been through the system, experienced counseling, and had probably been on anti-depressants. It seems that none of the above prevention methods had had much effect. Both were of sound mind, whether Mr Ashton had Asperger's syndrome or not. Had both come to the end of the line in their possible treatments? No. But that shouldn't affect our thinking that these two people, who were so fed up and ashamed of living had decided that they no longer had anything worth living for. That was their choice. If they hadn't met on the internet, it's likely they would have killed themselves at some point, whether now or years in the future. This isn't to say that they couldn't be "saved", but that maybe we should also respect their decision to end their lives.

On to the method and "chatroom" which is not being published by the Guardian. I would assume by the references to Japan throughout that they used a method which is gaining in popularity there and has become well-known as being a relatively reliable way to commit suicide, thanks to the internet. This is the method of a charcoal grill, lit in a car or enclosed space. This method negates the use of the engine being turned on and the telltale tube, meaning that anyone attempting this is less likely to be spotted, especially at night in an empty car-park. That Mr Ashton and Ms Williams most likely used this method shows how much they had researched and read on various methods. In other words, they had made their minds up, and to me there seems to be little which could have stopped them in any case.

The "chatroom" where they met is not a chatroom, although there was and still likely is an IRC room somewhere where some of the posters meet. It is a Usenet group which has become more and more notorious over the last few years, mainly because of the seeming number throughout the world who have used it to gain access to methods and other like-minded people who want to kill themselves. The group is called alt.suicide.holiday (wikipedia entry) and has its origins in the desperation a lot feel around the Christmas period, without friends and alone at a time of year when so many people are together. Since then the group has evolved into a place where suicidally depressed people have met and congregated, and generally expressed their feelings. The group has developed its own lingo, such as "catching the bus" meaning to commit suicide. The group view themselves as waiting for this "bus", talking about various things before deciding to either catch it or not. A FAQ on the newsgroup is available here.

The group now defines itself as being "pro-choice", that people should be allowed to commit suicide if they want to. Posts either discouraging or encouraging suicide are meant to be forbidden; but as a Usenet group, it is unmoderated and has the usual amount of spam, trolling and silliness as most of Usenet. This also isn't the first time that the group has become a news story. Wired carried a three-part series on the group at the beginning of 2003, with the main interviewee, a certain Douglas Wiser, who is not the most authoritative figure on the group by any means. He has got police and other organisations involved when some have posted that they intend to commit suicide, mainly young women. He has also been accused of various other misdemanours which aren't worth repeating.

At its inception, the website claimed to avoid anything to encourage suicide. However, it is understood to have been passed on to another host in Washington DC, who then handed it over to a man in California, who in turn passed it to its current host, Karin Spaink, a Dutch journalist. In its current guise, the website gives a direct link to the site of the suicide postings.

Ms Spaink argues that the website and chatroom do more good than harm. "I would rather have a place where people can discuss and investigate their anxiousness to commit suicide, rather than withdraw into an enclosed space where no other voices are heard," she says. "I would rather people talked about it, so they can investigate whether they do indeed want to die."

While acknowledging that some people have formed suicide pacts through this chatroom, Ms Spaink doubts whether many others will follow their lead.

In Japan, however, authorities have been alarmed by the number of people who have committed suicide after visiting suicide websites - 59 in the first four weeks of this year alone - and by the increasing number of internet pacts. In May, seven people, including a 14-year-old girl, killed themselves after striking an online agreement.

Writing in the British Medical Journal before the deaths of Mr Aston and Ms Williams, Sundararajan Rajagopal, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in London, warned that the internet could fuel a rise in such pacts.

He said the Japanese experience "might herald a new disturbing trend in suicide pacts, with more such incidents, involving strangers meeting over the internet, becoming increasingly common".

The Home Office says it considered amending the 1961 Suicide Act, which prohibits the aiding and abetting of suicide, but which could rarely be used to prosecute people posting chatroom messages. Eventually, a spokesman says, ministers and officials concluded that "we can't erase them from existence using legislation".

This decision is dismissed as "a cop-out" by Papyrus, a charity set up by bereaved British parents to reduce suicide among young people. Papyrus points to a number of cases in the UK in which suicide notes have revealed clearly "the pivotal role" of information from the internet.

In Australia, the federal authorities have drawn up legislation which will impose heavy fines on individuals or companies involved in the online promotion of suicide.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the voices in defence of suicide chatrooms yesterday was that of a close relative of Ms Williams, who believes that parental control may be needed, but not legislation.

"The web is there as a source of information for all of us, and it's better that these discussions aren't driven underground," he said. "Building high-rise blocks didn't increase the suicide rate, and I don't think the internet will either."

The close relative of Ms Williams makes the best point. If anything, the internet is also creating a place where many can get help without revealing their feelings to those around them or may become disturbed and do things which that person does not want. There are many more sites out there for those who want help and counseling than for those who are actively looking to kill themselves. The Papyrus group, formed of parents who failed to recognise warning signs in their children, or acted too late, ought to recognise that most teenagers grow out of their angsty period, and that those who do attempt suicide often do it not because they really want to die, but to gain attention. Groups such as those as alt.suicide.holiday are often composed of older people who have a history of mental disorders and feel they have come to the end of the line. Should we remove such a place which can relieve suffering from some, just because two who know what they were doing made a pact there?

The references to Japan are again not really applicable to the UK. Japan has a history of suicide being acceptable or even an honourable death. It is one of the main causes of death throughout the country across age groups. alt.suicide.holiday also doesn't exactly have a heavy Japanese presence. Different cultures have different approaches and taboos. Death and suicide is possibly the only remaining taboo here, as it is in the US, where the Bush administration is challenging an assisted suicide law in Oregon at the Supreme court, while here there is an assisted suicide bill for the terminally ill submitted in the Lords which has come in for heavy, if predictable criticism from bishops and the religious minority. This is despite one YouGov poll which suggested 87% of the public supported the right for the terminally ill to seek help in dying peacefully.

Sensationalism and control freakery will as usual solve little in such a delicate and nuanced case. Legislation is unnecessary, but better understanding and parental concern for their children's mental as well as physical health is. If we don't also recognise the cultural reasons for why depression and mental illness seems to be rising (rampant commercialism, materialist yearning, constant pressure to achieve ever greater "success", erosion of empathy and understanding, political cynicism) then the problem will only get worse.

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Why are hmans always trying to control others.
If a person chooses to die then what business is it of anyone's to try to stop them.
Help. Yeah right. Unless you can solve all my problems your help is not wanted or needed.
Help seems to be lies and drugs deluding the person into thinking that suffering is an integral part of life. It isnt. Nature did not have suffering until humanity polluted and attacked it.
The elite create this false world of governments and arbitrary laws that by nature force some people into poverty and depression. And the poisons of their industry polluted the world a long time ago causing some people to be born with mental issues.
Yet they want to stop people from suicide so they can have more slaves to support their megalomanaical delusions.
A time will come when evil shall be destroyed.

I enjoyed reading your commentary of the news articles. Crossing that line and gaining the nerve to commit suicide is extremely difficult. Only true desperation and suffering can empower a person to carry it out.

Having access to DIY suicide information gives me peace of mind, and so does the ability of others to have it as well. The "pacts" obviously give empowerment to two individuals who on their own might botch an attempt.

Relatives of deceased who go on campaigns like this make unwilling martyrs out of their loved ones and patronize the sense of anguish and misery that drove them to it.

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