“It Was a Momentary Mistake”: Suicide, Prevention, and Social Media #SPSM

The Sad Boy in the Fountain

It’s been just a little over a year since Aaron Schwartz committed suicide. A blogpost Monday looked at what has and hasn’t changed over the past year, relative to the issues Aaron was passionate about and fought for, as well as the triggers in his life that lent themselves to this sad and prominent story.

Jake New. How things have (or haven’t) changed in Aaron Swartz’s absence. January 27, 2014; 4:11pm. http://jakenew.com/2014/01/27/how-things-have-or-havent-changed-in-aaron-swartzs-absence/

But things have changed in social media and online environments with respect to the issue of suicide and suicide prevention. The big change I’m noticing has been in the attitude toward talking about suicide online. The following quotation is from a review published yesterday in JMIR, which cautiously describes the POSITIVE power of the Internet for suicide prevention.

“The Internet can be viewed as a double-edged tool. While it is accepted that the Internet may be used to trigger and encourage suicidal behavior, its potential as a tool for suicide prevention has been equally recognized.” MH Lai et al. Caught in the Web: A Review of Web-Based Suicide Prevention. J Med Internet Res 2014;16(1):e30 published 28.01.14. http://www.jmir.org/2014/1/e30/

This sense of potential and positive energy for preventing suicide through online spaces and social media has been embraced with the relatively new Twitter chat on suicide prevention, #SPSM, held every Sunday night at 10pm ET.

Part of what triggered this post is last week’s sad story reverberating through the gaming, manga, and anime communities, of the death of “JewWario”, a.k.a. Justin Carmical, a hugely popular gaming video blogger active in social media, including Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and niche communities. The title of this post comes from the Facebook posting by Justin’s wife of what her family chaplain told her, “it was a momentary mistake, hold on to the good memories.” For most of us outside of that community, this is one of those losses that will simply slide past, and not be noticed. For the community of his fans, followers, friends, partners, colleagues, and other loved ones, this loss is, of course, devastating, with impact of what feels right now like volcanic proportions.

My son has wept more than once in the past few days over the loss of Justin, and I have sat with him as he watched the many videos and read the blogposts that naturally occur when an online and social media community are grieving one of their own. Because of Justin’s powerful and active online life, that is where many of his friends are, and the community that has forged such a powerful online connection takes to the same space to honor and celebrate their losses. Most of the video postings and online conversations have included urgent and passionate messages of suicide prevention. I am including here two selected examples.

That Guy With the Glasses

Doug Walker (That Guy With The Glasses): In Loving Memory of Justin Carmical: http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/42100-in-loving-memory-of-justin-carmical

In Doug Walker’s memorial video, there is a three-part structure. First, Doug lays out the context. Next, he very quickly shifts into prevention information, with almost half the video devoted to why suicide should not be considered an option, what you can do, where to do for help, and similar information. The third and closing part of the video is a brilliantly crafted tribute montage of video and audio celebrating Justin’s life and joyful spirit. He specifically says he wants to focus on the positive, and wants people to go away from the video with a sense of happiness.

Angry Joe

The Angry Joe Show: In Memory of Justin “JewWario” Carmical 1971 – 2014 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERmJSKpRrtk

Angry Joe’s video closes with a brief and passionate plea to seek help if needed, and includes the following information in the “About” section.

“If you are in crisis, visit/call: https://www.afsp.org/
Please visit the Fundraiser for Justin’s Family: http://www.gofundme.com/6groao
Justin’s Original Channel on Blip: http://blip.tv/youcanplaythis
Justin on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/JewWario
Justin’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/justin.carmical

My heart & prayers go to his closest friends & family. We all love you, Justin.”

Almost anyone who is a survivor of a loved one who committed suicide will tell you the same: Don’t do it. The pain of surviving this type of loss is truly extraordinary, evidenced in small part by the thousands of suicide survivor support groups in existence.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Find a Support Group: http://www.afsp.org/coping-with-suicide/find-support/find-a-support-group

In Angry Joe’s video, most of the video was about his grief, the sense of loss, and the joy experienced through knowing Justin, with only the closing moments talking about suicide prevention.

When I first watched these videos I kept remembering all the many research articles I’ve read about copycat suicides deriving from the “media circus” approach to covering suicides of prominent public individuals. I was listening to all these grieving voices saying publicly, “Please, please, DON’T do this!” and feeling concern that even what they were saying might trigger exactly what they want to prevent. That’s part of the debate around online suicide prevention initiatives — talking about suicide can trigger it, talking about suicide can prevent it.

Then I tried to position all of this in what I know from personal experience about online communities and about suicide. I had a friend who committed suicide. I talked her out of it probably a dozen times, but at the end, she didn’t come ask for help, she just did it. I wondered why I bothered, all those other times. A part of me has never gotten past feeling angry and hurt. Seeing these videos about Justin has been very healing for me — seeing the joy he brought into the world, hearing the laughter coming through the tears of his friends who grieve his loss, reading the wise phrase “a momentary mistake.” Watching my son process all of this, I’m seeing that even at the distance of being a fan and not having ever met JewWario in person, this grief hurts him enough that I don’t think he would ever consider suicide. Seeing the pain of his idols shattered and weeping over this loss has, in a sense, inoculated him against the idea of taking the “easy out.”

At the same time, I considered, in a community forged and nourished in a public online space, how on earth could that community process loss and grief without doing so in a very public way? Saying, “Oh, don’t make a video, don’t talk about it where anyone might here” could be as damaging (if not more) than the reverse. Online communities change the game with how we hold these difficult conversations. Making the sorrow and grief transparent to the community can aid healing. I don’t want to be the person who goes out into an online community and tells them they are not allowed to grieve online, when they do almost everything else online. That isolation and the pain of grieving in isolation could easily trigger more damage than making sorrow visible.

I’m trying to think through what the difference is between the types of public displays and media coverage associated with the need to grieve and share that grieve when it arises in an online community, and the risks of triggering suicidal ideation in the vulnerable. I am no expert in this, and am not deeply familiar with the research in this area, so please, do not take me as any kind of expert. I am just sharing some thoughts and hoping others will also consider these issues. From my point of view, I’m thinking the difference might have to do with emotional distance. In reporting of suicides in the mainstream media, there is a sense of overwhelming attention combined with emotional distance. You see people weeping, but they aren’t people you know, you aren’t connected to their grief. With the grieving occurring for Justin in the online gaming community, people identify with these high profile vloggers. They meet them at conferences, they shake their hands. They wear their merchandise and get it signed. They comment on the posts, and engage in dialog. The community is not distant, but carries a kind of intimacy, allowing them to be touched on what feels like a personal level. I think that’s the difference — that online communities bring with them a very real intimacy. As Justin’s wife said, “He knew he was loved!”

So, how do we use social media for suicide prevention? By fostering intimacy and connection, by making the pain of loss visible and immediate, by celebrating the joy, and focusing on the positive. Maybe I’m wrong, but there are folk talking about this. Join them.

Here is one of the best examples I know of for using social media with a strong focus on the positive for suicide prevention.

Live Through This

Live Through This: http://livethroughthis.org

What are some other ways in which we could use social media to shape a POSITIVE conversation around suicide? How can we help others hear the message shared with Justin’s wife: “it was a momentary mistake, hold on to the good memories”?

3 responses to ““It Was a Momentary Mistake”: Suicide, Prevention, and Social Media #SPSM

  1. Very interesting post, thank you. I do have to disagree with a few of the things you wrote, though.

    I write this as someone who has struggled with mental illness and has experienced some of these thoughts myself. I just think this is an important mindset for people to understand.

    For one, I would not refer to suicide as a “momentary mistake.” I don’t see it as a single instant in which someone makes this decision. I think it is the culmination of suicidal thoughts and inner turmoil that eventually overwhelms someone or convinces them to believe this is the best option. I see it more as years or a lifetime of fighting a battle and being defeated, rather than a temporary moment where someone just makes a poor decision. There is much more that goes into it than just the one moment of choice.

    You also write that you hope your son will be inoculated against ever making this choice due to seeing the pain it has caused for survivors. Of course, I hope this for him, too, but one thing I believe about suicide is that it is not necessarily a rational choice. Often, people are experiencing twisted thinking which overrides their logic. They believe things about themselves which are overly harsh or entirely false. They have difficulty seeing through the way their own minds are lying to them.

    I think it’s so important to destigmatize mental health, talk openly and accurately about these topics, and make sure people get the help they need, because even the most intelligent, logical person can be pushed too far when their own abusive and twisted thinking gets out of control.

    Thanks again for the post, just wanted to leave my two cents.


  2. Dear SG, what an important comment! Thank you very much. I agree with your perspective in many ways. For my friend who committed suicide, it was as you describe. She made attempt after attempt after attempt, for years. She described death as a seductive lover she wanted to reject, but wasn’t sure she was strong enough. There are others I’ve known for whom it was as simple as being prescribed the wrong medicine, and all it needed to bring them back into balance was getting off that particular drug. For Justin, I don’t know his back story, I don’t know his family, and this was a new perspective for me. I felt it important to try to share that perspective, especially in the context of trying to make the dialog about suicide more open and less stigmatized. I don’t know how to make that happen, but believe the dialog is important. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and thoughts. Very much appreciated!


  3. Pingback: Aaron, Lost, and Found Again | Emerging Technologies Librarian

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